(CN) – A San Diego lobbyist conspired to funnel more than $500,000 from a wealthy Mexican businessman into political campaigns, according to a criminal complaint unsealed Wednesday.
Marco Polo Cortes was arrested Tuesday in San Diego on charges that he helped the businessman, who is not named in the complaint, donate to political campaigns under a straw donor’s name.
He made an initial appearance in Federal Court in San Diego on Wednesday.
His alleged co-conspirators, Ravneet Singh and Ernesto Encinas, were named in a similar complaint unsealed Tuesday.
Singh is the founder of ElectionMall, a company that provides social media services to political campaigns around the world. Encinas is a retired detective for the San Diego Police Department who provides security detail for the Mexican businessman. Both men helped the foreigner illegally donate to campaigns in San Diego, according to the complaint.
Prosecutors say the businessman first expressed interest in influencing San Diego elections in 2011, but was told he could not donate as a foreigner.
In 2012, Cortes allegedly helped the foreigner donate to the campaigns of candidates for federal elective office and mayor through a straw donor – the owner of a California-based company who was friends with the businessman.
The Mexican businessman would write the straw donor checks, including one for $380,000, which the donor deposited and distributed among his various bank accounts, according to the complaint. The straw donor then wrote checks from those accounts to political action committees, or PACs, which can pay for certain types of political advertising.
The foreigner and Encinas created their own PAC using $100,000 that the businessman funneled through a shell company based in the United States, prosecutors say. Their PAC spent about $114,000 promoting a mayoral candidate during the 2012 primary elections, according to the complaint.
The businessman also agreed to pay Singh and ElectionMall another $100,000 for social media services for that same candidate, prosecutors say.
The illegal donations came to a halt in August 2013, when the FBI set up a sting using a confidential informant who agreed to help authorities in exchange for immunity. As a representative for the mayoral candidate, the informant had been part of the conspiracy before agreeing to cooperate with the FBI, the agency says.
Cortes and Encinas allegedly met with the informant to discuss how the Mexican businessman could help a different candidate who was running for mayor to replace Bob Filner, who resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal.
Encinas also told the source “that he wanted the next mayor to fire the chief of police and replace him with a person of Encinas’ choosing,” according to the complaint.
Cortes is charged with conspiring to commit offenses against the United States. If convicted, he could serve up to five years in prison.
The FBI says it’s investigating the foreigner and the straw donor for potential conspiracy and illegal campaign contributions.
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