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The district attorney has a problem with dirty campaign cash.
Bonnie Dumanis received $10,000 in illegally laundered money during her failed 2012 mayoral campaign. More than a dozen additional contributions to her mayoral and 2014 DA re-election campaigns are under investigation by local and state authorities for possible money laundering. Federal officials have charged a Mexican businessman with making another illegal six-figure contribution to her mayoral campaign.
Dumanis hasn’t been accused of any crimes herself, but the depth and breadth of questionable campaign contributions she’s received is unmatched by any local politician. It’s unclear whether Dumanis has followed through yet on promises to return some of the tainted cash. She did not respond to requests for comment.
By law, there are limits on how much money individuals can contribute directly to politicians. Limit the money each person can give, the thinking goes, and you also limit the influence an individual donor has on elected officials. Illegal campaign money laundering occurs when a person skirts the limits by getting others to donate money and then reimburses them for the contributions.
Dumanis’ dirty money starts with donations tied to wealthy Mexican José Susumo Azano Matsura. Federal prosecutors have charged Azano with pumping roughly $150,000 in illegal contributions into Dumanis’ mayoral campaign starting in late 2011. Already, two of Azano’s co-conspirators have pleaded guilty in the case and admitted to city ethics investigators that they laundered Azano’s money to her campaign. Azano also is charged with making an additional $100,000 illegal donation to a political action committee that backed her mayoral bid as well as hundreds of thousands more in contributions to other politicians.
Dumanis’ problems don’t end with Azano. She also has received more than $14,000 in questionable donations from the local towing industry. Like the Azano cash, other politicians also got towing money, but Dumanis benefited the most. One Vista tow company owner has acknowledged laundering $2,000 through his employees to Dumanis’ mayoral bid. Most of the rest of questionable towing contributions remain under local and state investigation.
When the Azano scandal first broke in early 2014, Dumanis was in the middle of a re-election campaign. She pledged to return all the money linked to the scandal – and gave back a few thousand that Azano associates gave to her DA campaign.
But there was also $10,000 in Azano-related donations to Dumanis’ 2012 mayoral campaign she said she was going to give to charity. (By the time the charges against Azano were announced, her mayoral campaign committee was shuttered and she couldn’t refund the cash directly.) Dumanis later said she would make the donation, which would come from her own wallet, once the criminal case was complete.
Azano’s case is ongoing. But since Dumanis promised to return the money, Azano’s associates have admitted they laundered money to her. It’s unknown whether Dumanis has donated to a charity yet.
Dumanis has not made a similar promise to return illegal towing money. This week, the city’s Ethics Commission will weigh whether it has enough evidence to hold a public hearing against Midway-based Advantage Towing for allegedly laundering $7,500 to Dumanis and two others in the 2012 mayoral election.
During that campaign, Dumanis returned two $500 donations from tow company employees without explanation. Similar donations from low-level towing employees are now suspected in the money laundering cases. Dumanis has said she’ll occasionally return campaign money if she’s aware of legal or ethical issues with the donors.
There’s strong evidence Azano was trying to enlist Dumanis’ help in his fight against San Diego’s Sempra Energy. As for the tow companies, the motive is less clear. Towing companies have a general interest in obtaining government contracts and in being left alone by law enforcement.
Asked last year by the U-T whether illegal donors were trying to gain influence with her, Dumanis said it wouldn’t matter if they were.
“I would tell them, ‘No!’ Easy as that,” Dumanis said.