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The DA’s Big Court Appearance Was Pretty Lame

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis didn’t clear up much about her relationship with José Susumo Azano Matsura, the wealthy Mexican businessman who’s been charged with making illegal contributions to San Diego political races, in her testimony Wednesday.

Well, that was lame.

A couple weeks ago, we laid out questions we hoped District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ testimony in a high-profile trial would answer.

But Dumanis didn’t clear up much during her appearance in the trial of the wealthy Mexican businessman who’s been charged with making illegal contributions to San Diego political races — including Dumanis’ 2012 mayoral campaign.

José Susumo Azano Matsura is a foreign national, which means he’s barred from donating money to U.S. campaigns. But he ultimately contributed more than half a million dollars — a large portion of it to Dumanis’ mayoral bid — through straw donors and political action committees in an effort to win over powerful political allies in San Diego, prosecutors allege.

The district attorney hasn’t been accused of any wrongdoing — she’s maintained that Azano was just another donor — but even before Azano’s indictment, there were questions about the legality of his donations and what motivated him to take a particular interest in Dumanis’ campaign. And, in the two years since Azano’s indictment, the district attorney’s failed to be forthcoming about communication she had with Azano and his associates.

The big question that remains is what Azano was trying to achieve with his contributions — whether it was to enlist elected officials’ help in his long battle against Sempra Energy or, as prosecutors have argued, develop a “Miami West” on San Diego’s bayfront. Or something else entirely.

Here are some highlights from Dumanis’ testimony.

Dumanis said she doesn’t really remember what she talked about with Azano — ever.

Dumanis said she first met Azano in December 2011 at a luncheon at his Coronado home. She testified Wednesday that she didn’t recall how the lunch came about, but remembered the two were introduced by Ernesto “Ernie” Encinas, a retired San Diego police detective, Azano confidante and longtime friend of Dumanis who pleaded guilty in March 2014 to facilitating Azano’s campaign donations.

“I was introduced to someone who was introduced as Susumo Azano,” she said.

“What did you talk about?” Azano’s attorney, Michael Wynne, asked. “I don’t remember,” Dumanis responded. “The one thing I do remember are the cars,” she said, referring to Azano’s extensive collection of high-end cars. She said she also recalled him expressing interest in buying the Chargers.

When news of the campaign-finance scandal first broke, Dumanis said she’d only met with Azano once, at the Coronado lunch. Voice of San Diego later revealed that in March 2012, Dumanis also had a private 40-minute meeting with Azano, Sheriff Bill Gore and Encinas.

Dumanis testified Wednesday that she initiated that meeting to introduce Azano to the sheriff — she described it as a “meet-and-greet with elected officials,” adding, “We do that quite often.”

Dumanis said “nothing of substance was discussed” at the meeting, a claim supported by Adrian Reyes, a defense witness who testified just before Dumanis.

Reyes, a longtime Azano family friend and former intern for Rep. Juan Vargas — who also received campaign contributions from Azano’s straw donors — said that on March 2, 2012, he was heading to Fashion Valley mall with Azano when Encinas showed up at Azano’s house and started “badgering Mr. Azano to meet with Sheriff Gore.”

Reyes said they followed Encinas to the sheriff’s office in Azano’s Ferrari 599GTO. Reyes said Azano “had no idea” why Encinas was taking them to see Gore, and that he found it strange that Dumanis and her campaign fundraiser, Kelli Maruccia, were waiting for them when they arrived.

“Mr. Azano wasn’t happy,” Reyes said. “He didn’t understand why any of those people were there.”

In the elevator ride to the sheriff’s office, “Bonnie was talking about how important Bill Gore was and it was going to be a short meet-and-greet meeting,” Reyes testified. He described the meeting as a little awkward, “like a first date” and that Gore “pretty much didn’t know what was going on.”

Reyes said they mostly talked about golf.

Dumanis knew Azano was drumming up money — and had contributed to a PAC supporting her mayoral bid — but never questioned the legality of his donations.

Dumanis said that because she was the DA, her mayoral campaign staff “took extra precautions” to ensure sure all contributions were legal. She testified that while she knew Azano was raising money for her campaign, she had no idea he was reimbursing individual donors.

When asked about an email she sent to campaign staff on Christmas Day 2011, in which she mentioned a conference call she’d just had with “Mr. A” (Azano’s nickname), Encinas and a political consultant named Ravneet Singh — who’s also been charged with making illegal campaign donations — Dumanis said she didn’t recall anything that was discussed or who initiated the call. In the email, which was displayed in court, Dumanis told her staff that Azano is “very wealthy” and was “helping to raise money from his family and friends” — and that Singh might be willing to volunteer with the campaign due to “budget issues.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Pletcher asked whether Dumanis recalled an email from Maruccia, her fundraiser, asking her to “speak to Mr. A” about raising $75,000 by March 2012. Dumanis said she had no recollection.

The conference call and email call into question Dumanis’ claim, in a 2014 interview, that she didn’t know Azano was supporting her mayoral bid until late May 2012, when CityBeat reported on a PAC supporting Dumanis to which Azano had donated.

That story questioned whether Azano could legally contribute money to a U.S. campaign. At the time, PAC manager Kevin Spillane told CityBeat that Azano had a green card, which made the donation legal.

“[The article] caused you to at least question Mr. Azano’s immigration status?” Schopler asked.

“It was answered in the article that it was OK,” Dumanis said.

A few weeks ago, in his opening statements to the jury, Schopler said San Diego political consultant John Wainio — who’d been approached before Spillane to manage the PAC — had asked Dumanis whether Azano had a green card, according to the Union-Tribune.

“All he got was a silence,” Schopler told jurors. “A long uncomfortable silence.”

According to the U-T, Schopler told jurors that Wainio turned down the job and Azano “eventually found another consultant who was unaware of his immigration status to head the PAC.”

A letter of recommendation from the district attorney is kind of meaningless.

One of the odd, early revelations in the case was that Dumanis wrote a letter of recommendation on behalf of Azano’s son, Edward Susumo Azano Hester, who wanted to attend University of San Diego. The younger Azano, known for throwing lavish parties in Las Vegas, has also been indicted for allegedly helping recruit straw donors.

The letter, dated Sept. 28, 2012, is on district attorney letterhead and addressed to University of San Diego President Mary Lyons. It describes Edward Azano as an “exceptional student and individual” who regularly engaged in humanitarian aid in Mexico.

Dumanis testified Wednesday that she’d never met Edward, nor any other member of the Azano family.

In court, prosecutors exhibited an email from Maruccia to Dumanis’ private email account, dated Sept. 27, 2012: “Mr. A via Ernie [Encinas] has asked if you could sign a letter of recommendation for his son,” the email says. An attached draft of the letter was incorrectly addressed to UC San Diego. The following day, Maruccia sent a revised letter addressed to University of San Diego. Neither the defense nor prosecution asked who might have written the letter.

“Is it fair to say this is a form document with a little addition?” Wynne, Azano’s attorney, asked Dumanis.

“When people ask me for a letter of recommendation, I ask them to write the letter… and give me a reason. Usually I know the person’s [family],” she said.

Dumanis said she’ll then look over the letter to see if anything appears inaccurate, and sign it.

She said on the stand Wednesday that she’s not even sure she signed the USD letter, noting that it looked like an electronic signature.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the prosecutor who asked Dumanis about an email that referred to “Mr. A.” It was Assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Pletcher.

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