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Last year, we uncovered a random, important detail about a Mexican tycoon who was accused of funneling money illegally into San Diego campaigns: He had a private meeting with Sheriff Bill Gore.
It raised more questions. Why would José Susumo Azano Matsura dare get involved in San Diego politics? As a Mexican citizen, it would be illegal for him to donate to campaigns. He didn’t seem to have any particular interest in public affairs.
He did, though, trade in Israeli-made spy gear, did business in Singapore and Dubai and had connections at the highest-levels of the Mexican government.
Was he selling something – like surveillance gear – to Gore?
No, it turns out he was probably more interested in what Gore did in a previous life – when he was head of the FBI in San Diego. Azano, it seems clear now, was making a few last, desperate moves in a bitter fight with one of San Diego’s largest companies: Sempra Energy.
That’s why we believe Azano got involved in San Diego politics. He was trying to turn back the tide of attention he was getting from federal law enforcement.
Azano began meeting with San Diego politicians in late 2011, starting with lunch with District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and then, over the next year, getting face time with Gore, former Mayor Bob Filner and Rep. Juan Vargas, who was then running for Congress. Around the same time, Azano’s war with Sempra took a turn against him. He needed San Diego allies and, in at least one case, specifically tried to lobby a local politician to help him.
It all goes back to 2008, when Azano decided to invest in a Mexican rancher’s land dispute with Sempra. The rancher claimed Sempra stole a piece of land that belonged to him, next to the company’s $1 billion liquefied natural gas plant near Ensenada. If the rancher won, Azano would get a lot of money.
By mid-2011, that bet was looking bad. Federal investigators had shuttered an investigation into Sempra’s alleged corrupt activities in Mexico and, at Sempra’s behest, had started probing Azano’s involvement in an armed police raid on Sempra’s plant. More federal investigations would follow.
Azano started to feel the heat. He says his private jet pilot was being harassed, border searches became more invasive and damaging information was getting leaked across Mexico. Vargas said his dinner with Azano in September 2012 had one subject.
“It was all about Sempra,” Vargas said.
Azano asked for Vargas’ help to turn prosecutors onto the company’s actions in Mexico, Vargas said. Vargas told him to talk to the prosecutors.
Azano ultimately was charged with illegally giving more than a half-million dollars to campaigns affiliated with Vargas, Dumanis and Filner. And Azano’s connections to San Diego politics don’t end there. Remember Bob Brewer, the candidate who lost to Dumanis in her re-election campaign last year? Brewer was one of Sempra’s lawyers who, in early 2011, urged the FBI to go after Azano.
It’s based on this history, and Azano’s frequent mention of Sempra in his own court filings, that we believe Azano became interested in San Diego politics because of his fight with the company.
Azano has declined our interview requests. Prosecutors have said Azano was motivated by an interest in developing along the downtown San Diego bay, but haven’t given any details to support that claim.
Gore doesn’t believe Sempra came up during his meeting with Azano, a spokeswoman said, and a Dumanis spokesman said the DA doesn’t remember whether Azano mentioned the company.