Get News Delivered Daily
A weekly insiders guide to political and policy news (Sundays)
What did Bonnie Dumanis and José Susumo Azano Matsura discuss during their multiple meetings as she was running for mayor in 2012? Here's hoping her testimony in Azano's campaign finance trial yields some answers.
Bonnie Dumanis is not on trial.
But the San Diego district attorney’s upcoming court appearance in the trial of José Susumo Azano Matsura is probably the most anticipated moment of the case. Dumanis could testify as soon as this week.
Azano, a Mexican citizen who lives in Coronado, and some of his associates are charged with funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into San Diego political races, including Dumanis’ 2012 campaign for mayor. It’s illegal for foreign nationals to contribute to U.S. campaigns.
Dumanis’ involvement with Azano has been murky from the start. She has consistently misrepresented the extent of her relationship with Azano since the scandal unfolded.
When Dumanis is called to testify in the case, here are some of the biggest questions we’re hoping she’ll answer.
When the campaign finance scandal was first revealed, Dumanis said she recalled meeting Azano only once – when she went to a lunch at his Coronado home in 2012.
But then we revealed that in March 2012, Dumanis also had a private 40-minute meeting with Azano, Sheriff Bill Gore and Ernesto Encinas, a former San Diego police detective who Dumanis has known for years and who has already pleaded guilty for his role in facilitating illegal campaign donations.
At the time, a spokeswoman for Gore said “The sheriff does not recall many specifics, but does remember that Mr. Azano discussed his affection for golf, his residence in Coronado and that he mentioned at length all the government officials he knew in Mexico.” A spokesman for Dumanis said “I understand nothing of substance was discussed.”
That would mean the two most powerful law enforcement officials in San Diego made time for a meeting with an influential businessman – a meeting that appeared on Gore’s official calendar, and was held in a public building – to chat about golf.
In July 2014, KUSI asked Dumanis how many times she had met with Azano. She responded that it would be impossible for her to keep track: “Because there’s a federal case pending, I don’t want to really get into the details. But in a campaign, I meet thousands of people, and this was two years ago. So, I’ve talked about this from the beginning because I want to be open about it and so I’ll leave that at that.”
Court filings in the federal case reveal Dumanis held at least one conference call with her mayoral campaign staff and Azano, Encinas and political consultant Ravi Singh, who is also facing charges. In the filings, Dumanis refers to Azano as “Mr. A” when discussing him with her staff. She informs her staff that Azano is very wealthy, that she told Singh about the campaign’s “budget issues,” and that Azano put Singh in touch with her.
Dumanis also wrote a college recommendation letter for Azano’s son.
So, Dumanis was at least familiar enough with Azano to refer to him by a nickname and help a member of his family, but has claimed she is not familiar enough with him to remember any of their interactions.
The improper donations prosecutors say Azano made to Dumanis’ mayoral campaign went to a political action committee supporting her bid.
On top of the rule that says foreign nationals can’t donate money to U.S. campaigns, campaign finance rules dictate that PACs and their efforts must be kept separate from the candidates themselves.
Dumanis knows this: “Every candidate has PACs that get involved that are totally separate from the campaign. My campaign was ‘Elect Bonnie Dumanis for Mayor.’ That’s what I had control of,” she told Roger Hedgecock. “We followed the rules because I am the DA, and I’m very careful and my campaign team is very careful to make sure that we don’t cross any lines. … What is clear to me is that there is nothing that suggests that I’ve done anything wrong whatsoever.”
But Dumanis’ multiple interactions with Encinas and Azano during her campaign for mayor leave open the question of whether she knew they were trying to donate money to PACs supporting her candidacy.
Robert Hickey, a deputy district attorney who’s currently running for city attorney, told us that Encinas approached him in late 2011 or 2012 about donating money on Azano’s behalf to the deputy DAs’ PAC to support Dumanis. Hickey was head of the Deputy District Attorneys Association at the time.
Though the deputy DAs’ PAC, called San Diegans Against Crime, endorsed Dumanis, the group’s bylaws stipulate that it can’t accept money pegged to specific candidates. Hickey said he brushed off Encinas’ offer for that reason.
With that option off the table, Azano set up his own PAC to contribute money to Dumanis’ campaign. A political consultant for the deputy DA’s PAC testified that he told Encinas to set up his own independent expenditure committee instead. It is the donations to that committee, plus donations made to other candidates, that Azano is on trial for.
And though, again, Dumanis is not being accused of wrongdoing, evidence provided by the Azano prosecutors shows she was communicating with Azano, Encinas and a political consultant named Ravneet Singh – all of whom have been charged with crimes stemming from donations made to her campaign and others.
Here’s an excerpt from prosecutors in one of the court filings (we assume Candidate 1 is Dumanis):
In December 2011, Candidate 1 sent an email to campaign staff members, stating that Candidate 1 had received a conference call from Encinas, Azano and Singh, that Azano was very wealthy, and that Azano wanted Candidate 1 to speak with Singh because Singh was “a master of Internet campaign stuff.” Candidate 1 stated that it was unclear whether Singh wanted “to do some volunteer advising or some form of paid work,” but that Candidate 1 told him “about our budget issues.” Candidate 1 stated that Singh “apparently flew to SD just to talk with Mr A who wanted him to talk to me!”
If Dumanis is to be believed, it would mean she was communicating with people accused of a crime, about issues related to the crime they’re accused of committing, but did not know anything about the crime or commit one herself.
In her interview with Hedgecock, Dumanis said she learned of Azano’s spending on her behalf when it was reported by CityBeat during the 2012 election. That report came out months after she sent the email to her staff in which she discussed Azano’s wealth and said that Azano had put her in touch with Singh, with whom she discussed the campaign’s financial problems.
Dumanis had multiple meetings with Azano. She wrote a college recommendation letter for his son. She received a gift basket from Azano around Christmas 2012. And, according to prosecutors, Azano donated more than $200,000 toward Dumanis’ mayoral campaign.
It all begs the question: Did Azano want something from her in return?
Prosecutors in the case believe Azano was motivated to spend money in San Diego races by a desire to develop property along the waterfront.
Outlining the case against Azano for jurors on Wednesday, Assistant U.S Attorney Andrew Schopler said Azano’s plan to develop the waterfront into a West Coast Miami led him into San Diego politics, with the idea of getting influence and “buying a mayor.”
Our own in-depth investigation of Azano revealed another potential motive: His long-running fight with energy giant Sempra:
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. (Rep. Juan) Vargas said his dinner with Azano in September 2012 had one subject.
“It was all about Sempra,” Vargas said. … 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.
Whether Azano was trying to court favor to win development contracts, or gain an upper hand against Sempra – or both, or neither – what he hoped to accomplish by donating money to San Diego politicians remains the central mystery of this case.