San Diego DA Testifies in Campaign Donor Scandal

     
     SAN DIEGO (CN) — San Diego’s district attorney took the stand Wednesday to testify about donations she received during her failed mayoral campaign from a Mexican businessman on trial over charges that he illegally funneled more than $600,000 into San Diego politics.
     District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis was called as a witness by Jose Asumo Azano Matsura’s defense attorney Michael Wynne and questioned about her relationship with the Mexican millionaire and two meetings where she met him in person.
     Federal prosecutors charged Azano in 2014 along with his son Edward Susumo Azano Hester, lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes and ElectionMail president Ravneet Singh with conspiring to violate federal election laws by giving $627,000 in illegal campaign contributions to mayoral and congressional candidates in San Diego.
     Dumanis and disgraced former mayor Bob Filner top the list of high-profile politicians whose campaigns the wealthy Mexican businessman is accused of funding.
     It is against the law for foreign nationals like Azano to donate to U.S. campaigns.
     Earlier this week, Timothy Walsh — chief of staff to Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego — testified about donations he and other staff members from Vargas’ campaign also solicited from Azano on behalf of a national Democratic campaign committee.
     Dumanis has been somewhat of a linchpin witness in the trial, which is in its fourth week. While she is not charged with conspiring to solicit illegal campaign contributions for her 2012 bid for mayor of San Diego, her involvement in the case has brought heightened media attention.
     Dumanis walked into the courtroom Wednesday wearing a white jacket and exchanged pleasantries with U.S. District Judge Michael Anello, the jury and attorneys. She even refused an offer of candy from Azano’s attorney Wynne, saying she’s “constantly on a diet.”
     “I wanted to get back to court, but this wasn’t what I had in mind,” Dumanis said before questioning began.
     Dumanis said she was introduced to Azano by Ernie Encinas, Azano’s former security chief and a former San Diego Police Department vice detective. She and Encinas had worked with on cases while she was an assistant district attorney, she said.
     Encinas pleaded guilty in March 2014 to conspiring to commit crimes against the United States and filing a false tax return, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
     Dumanis testified that she met Azano on two separate occasions while she was campaigning for mayor: once at a “meet-and-greet luncheon” at Azano’s Coronado mansion, and a second time at a meeting with Sheriff Bill Gore at the Gore’s office.
     At the “meet-and-greet” in Azano’s home, Dumanis said Azano talked about buying the San Diego Chargers football team and showed her his collection of “sporty, colorful cars.”
     As for the meeting with Gore, another witness called Wednesday morning by Wynne — Adrian Reyes — said he was with Azano heading to an upscale San Diego shopping mall when they received a frantic call from Encinas to go to a meeting with the sheriff and district attorney.
     Reyes said neither he nor Azano knew why they were being called to Gore’s office. It turned out to be another “meet-and-greet,” but this time was to introduce Gore to Azano.
     “It felt like a blind date. Everyone seemed a little confused why we were there. Gore didn’t seem to know why we were there either,” Reyes said.
     In the end, Azano and Reyes walked away with “medallions, stickers and business cards” from Dumanis and Gore, Reyes said.
     When Dumanis was questioned about the two meetings, she repeatedly told Wynne she didn’t recognize anyone at the defendants’ table — despite having met Azano twice.
     “You keep pointing at people at the table but I don’t recognize anyone,” Dumanis said.
     She also told the jury she was not prepped by either side before giving her testimony.
     An email sent by Dumanis to her campaign staff on Christmas Day 2011 was repeatedly shown during questioning by attorneys on both sides. In it, Dumanis told her campaign staff she had a conference call with Encinas and Azano about donating to her campaign.
     “Azano is a very wealthy man, and is helping raise money from family and friends,” the email read.
     Dumanis testified that she could not recall details from the conference call with Azano and Encinas, such as who initiated the call or why they had the conference call in the first place.
     U.S. Attorney Andrew Schopler asked Dumanis during cross-examination if red flags would go up had she known a donor had been reimbursed for a campaign donation.
     “Absolutely,” Dumanis responded.
     Dumanis said she was never concerned about Azano’s citizenship status, since she believed he was a U.S. citizen.
     “Any campaign I’m aware of does not ask each person who donates if they’re a citizen,” Dumanis said.
     The DA said she was not alerted to any potential problems with Azano’s campaign contributions until she read an article from San Diego City Beat, which questioned his status after he donated $100,000 to an independent expenditure committee raising money to elect Dumanis as mayor.
     
     Azano Funded National Campaigns, Too
     Earlier this week, testimony by Walsh centered on a $30,000 individual donation that federal prosecutors claim Azano made through one of his friends, luxury car dealer Marc Chase.
     Walsh — a longtime staff member and friend of Vargas — interned for the congressman while he was a college student in San Diego and worked up the ranks to chief of staff.
     Chase, a friend of Azano, acknowledged he wrote a check to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and was reimbursed by Azano for making the donation, according to trial coverage by San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Greg Moran. Chase was also accused of writing checks to an independent committee helping Filner as well as to the San Diego County Democratic Party. The three checks allegedly totaled $180,000.
     He pleaded guilty in March 2014 to eight misdemeanors including conspiracy, aiding and abetting political contributions by a foreign national and making a straw contribution in a federal campaign, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
     Vargas’ bid for Congress began in 2012, when he was a state senator in a heavily Democratic district. Walsh said that because Vargas was considered a shoo-in for the 51st District congressional seat, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee asked for help from Vargas and his staff to raise money for other Democrats across the nation. Their goal was to raise $100,000 for the committee, Walsh said.
     Government affairs consultant Marco Polo Cortes, who used to work for Vargas, contacted Walsh and the Vargas campaign on behalf of a client interested in making a big donation to the committee, Walsh testified. That client turned out to be Azano.
     Prosecutors showed an email chain involving Walsh corresponding with Cortes about the donation and contribution information forms which donors needed to fill out.
     Walsh said that at no point did he have concerns over Azano’s ability to donate to the campaign, despite frustration expressed by Vargas’ fundraising manager over how campaign donation laws would apply to a donation by Azano.
     “There are certain things you don’t want to make mistakes on in a campaign. It stuck out to me that was an issue we wanted to get right,” Walsh said.
     Campaigns often get fined or sanctioned if they don’t follow campaign-donation laws, which Walsh said he and Vargas’ other staffers wanted to avoid by “doing everything to the letter as much as possible.”
     Vargas’ campaign has not been fined or sanctioned in relation to the $30,000 donation, according to Walsh. The congressman has not been charged with any crime.
     Vargas met with Azano at least twice, and Walsh even extended an invitation to Azano to attend a fundraiser in Los Angeles with Vargas for President Barack Obama’s reelection bid, Walsh said. But the two never attended the Obama fundraiser and Azano has never attended a fundraiser for Vargas, Walsh said.
     The trial is scheduled to continue through the end of the week.
     
     Sketch by Krentz Johnson

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