Mysterious Foreign Donations in San Diego Campaign Case

It’s illegal under federal and state law for non-citizens to contribute to candidates in U.S. elections.  Last week, federal prosecutors in San Diego unsealed criminal complaints that charged three men with funneling foreign money into recent San Diego Mayoral elections, apparently hoping to influence the new Mayor to fire police chief Bill Lansdowne and install a replacement to their liking.  Why they wanted a new police chief is still a mystery.

Based on the complaints and press reports,  a Mexican billionaire, Jose Azano Matsuara, funneled approximately $500,000 through shell companies and a straw donor.  The funds flowed through ElectionMall, Inc., a DC-based campaign consulting firm owned by defendant Ravneet Singh.   A retired San Diego police detective, Ernesto Encinas, and a local lobbyist, Marco Polo Cortes, were also charged with participating in the scheme.

The original complaint describes a scheme  in which the defendants first funneled around $340,000 to help now-disgraced former Mayor Bob Filner get elected in 2012.  After Filner got recalled after a notorious sexual harrassment scandal, the defendants shifted their largesse to Nathan Fletcher, who was running (unsuccessfully) for mayor in the special election.

The scheme went awry when two of the individuals who had been solicited by the defendants alerted the FBI and began cooperating.  According to the complaint, the FBI secretly recorded several meetings between the cooperators and Encinas, in which Encinas allegedly explained how he would create shell companies to hid the true source of the illegal donations.  (Ironically, the billionaire Azano reportedly made his fortune in surveillance and security technology).

In addition to mayoral candidates Filner and Fletcher, Azano’s funds were spend to benefit the campaigns of  San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis ($114,000), and U.S. Representative Juan Vargas. Fletcher, Dumanis and Vargas have denied knowing anything about the tainted source of the illegal independent expenditures.   

No formal charges yet against the alleged moneyman, Azano.  But I wouldn’t expect him to be leving Mexico to visit his vacation home on Coronado island any time soon.

 

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