By Doug Porter / San Diego Free Press
The big story today concerns the dark side of campaign finance. A complaint unsealed in federal court yesterday indicates that law enforcement agencies are building a case around illegal contributions made by Mexican businessman Susumo Azano to candidates in recent San Diego elections.
Ravi Singh, owner of ElectionMall Inc., and retired SDPD detective Ernesto Encinas have already been charged with conspiring to funnel more than $500,000 of illegal contributions to various campaign committees during 2012 and 2013. The candidates’ names are redacted in the federal complaint, which refers to them as c1, c2, c3, and c4
Campaign finance records and inside sources talking to reporters at UT-San Diego indicate the monies went to PACs working to support District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ mayoral run, former Mayor Bob Filner and former Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher. One candidate, who ran for federal office in 2012, remains unidentified.
Since the PACs operated as independent expenditure operations not technically affiliated with the actual campaigns, it seems unlikely a case can or will be made that any of the politicians named had knowledge or involvement with these illegal donations.
Can We Name a Micro-Brew After Dave Maass?
This story has its origins in reporting in City Beat by Dave Maass back in May 2012. The original story followed contributions from Azano (who has not been charged. yet.) through an obscure aviation company (Airsam) to a Super PAC supporting Dumanis. As a Mexican national, it was illegal for Azano to contribute.
From City Beat:
Republican political strategist Kevin Spillane is managing the PAC’s fundraising and spending with the help of professional campaign treasurer Rebecca Luby, who previously worked as deputy finance director of the California Republican Party and still has the party as a client. According to a recent campaign-finance disclosure, the committee spent just short of $30,000 on a mailer this week.
Spillane says that Airsam is only one of many donors to the Super PAC, each of whom has been thoroughly vetted. Although Azano is a foreign national, Spillane says Airsam is eligible to contribute because it’s a U.S.-based entity and Azano has a green card.
The federal complaint (and amazingly, many of the dead tree journalists reporting on this story) credits Maass’ reporting for triggering the investigation. The City Beat reporter left San Diego last year to work with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. On his way out he was honored with a San Diego city council proclamation officially naming February 13th as “Dave Maass Day.” Since he’s already been honored in this fashion, it appears to me the next-best suitable gesture our city can make is to name a beer after him. I hear he likes “bitter” beer.
A Bloomin’ Onion
Like a Aussies’ bloomin’ onion, this story has a lot of layers. Let’s start with Susumo Azano, who’s referred to as a “Mexican national” in the federal complaint and much of the local reporting. Press accounts say he has a home in Coronado and spends much of his time flying in a private jet to supervise his investments.
According to his website:
Susumo Azano, a Mexican citizen with Japanese descent, is the current chairman of Security Tracking Device SA CV out of Guadalajara, Mexico. His career path has taken many turns after earning a degree in architecture, but his background and experiences have prepared him well for a life as an entrepreneur, architect, and manager.
Azano also owns companies involved with construction, urban development, steel manufacturing and secure document creation. In other words, he’s a tycoon. And he has an ego to match.
Back in March, 2011 Azano was mentioned in UT-San Diego in a story arising from a failed attempt by Ensenada’s mayor, who got in a bit of trouble after sending police, some in SWAT uniforms, to shut down Sempra’s $1 billion natural gas plant on the Baja California coast.
The confrontation arose from a complaint by a local rancher, who claimed the land had been illegally acquired. The UT-San Diego story revealed an agreement between the rancher and Azano, who agreed to finance efforts to reclaim the land in return for 55 percent of any money and 66 percent of any land the rancher won from Sempra.
“Based upon the written agreement between Susumo Azano and Sanchez Ritchie, we believe Susumo Azano is behind an orchestrated effort to extract money from the company,” said Darcel Hulse, chief executive of Sempra LNG, the subsidiary that operates the Ensenada import terminal.
Susumo Azano confirmed the agreement, but denied being part of a campaign. He said he’s so successful he doesn’t need Sempra’s money, but is acting to correct an injustice. He admitted talking to Ensenada’s mayor about Sempra’s plant, but said he’s taken a back seat to Sanchez Ritchie’s lawyers and is no longer putting money into the legal efforts.
According to the federal complaint unsealed yesterday, “ Witnesses indicate that in or about 2011 the Foreign National became interested in influencing San Diego electoral politics.”
The Internet Election Guru
Azano reached out to Ravneet (Ravi) Singh, owner of a company called ElectionMall, which offered a one-stop shop for campaigns looking for social media outreach and other election related services. They’re well known in the campaign business “for hiring fetching young women in fitted T-shirts to draw techies to company events.”
According to the federal complaint, in February 2012, Azano agreed to pay $100,000 for social media services in support of “Candidate 1” (most likely Dumanis).
Politico.com published an unflattering portrait of Singh/ElectionMall in April 2011. Here are the opening paragraphs:
In capitals across the globe in recent months, the face of Barack Obama’s groundbreaking 2008 online campaign has been one Ravi Singh, a self-styled “campaign guru” with a colorful turban, a reassuring smile and a killer sales pitch.
He has been called the man “responsible for the Internet campaign of Barack Obama,” in Poland, the “election guru” of Obama and Clinton” in India, “el guru tecnologico de Obama” in Colombia, and “homme qui a géré la campagne d’Obama sur Internet” in France.
There’s just one major thing wrong with this international portrait of Web wizardry — Singh never worked for Obama.
The account by reporter Ben Smith (now with Buzzfeed) goes on to describe a world wide web of what can charitably be described as deceptive sales pitches. So you have to wonder just how good the actual services provided were.
Again, from the Politico reporting:
In 2009, his company’s brief stewardship of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s (R-Texas) gubernatorial web operation almost got the campaign website blacklisted from Google’s index. The Austin American Statesman reported that the site had malicious search terms hidden in the source code of Hutchison’s website that suggested, among other things, that Hutchison’s opponent was gay in a possible attempt to game the search engine’s algorithm.
The incident left hard feelings, and Singh’s company was fired. Singh declined to comment on the episode, citing a nondisclosure agreement.
Singh did, as he said, contract with the New Mexico Democratic Party for several years, including during the 2008 cycle, a party official confirmed. But party officials said the technology provided by ElectionMall was archaic and backward. The party eventually terminated them as a vendor.
A Retiring Detective
Susumo Azano retained the services of Ernesto Encinas, a retired SDPD detective who’d founded a private security and consulting business to oversee his “protection detail” (a nicer word for bodyguards).
According to the complaint, the two men created a super PAC in May, 2012, with Encinas contributing $3000 and Azano $100,000 via a “shell corporation.” This was the start of an increasingly complex and intricate arraignment used to hide the true source of funds being given to campaigns. The government also says it was Encinas’ role to “seek favors from” officials and candidates in San Diego.
One of the offers he made was documented by the feds during the run up to this fall’s special election. According to the Los Angeles Times:
According to the complaint, Encinas then approached a would-be candidate’s representative with an offer: masked contributions from the Mexican businessman, in exchange for the candidate, if elected, firing Police Chief Bill Lansdowne and letting Encinas pick his successor.
“Encinas further stated that this was the one ‘guarantee’ he sought from Candidate 4 in exchange for the Foreign National’s campaign money,” according to the complaint.
By the time the offer was allegedly made, the FBI was following Encinas, and political operatives who met with him were working as confidential informants. No deal was struck.
We Know Nothing!
Spokespeople from the various candidates, and in one instance (Nathan Fletcher) the candidate himself, have all pointed out these transactions occurred between the defendants and political action committees or other outside “entities”.
Reporter Dave Maass watched the scandal unfold via his Twiiter account last night, even chiming in with information about donations recorded in Encinas name to Todd Gloria and Juan Vargas. Those donations are not mentioned in the federal complaint.
There’s more coming on this, including information about a “straw man” used as a conduit for donations, widely suspected to be Marc Chase, owner of Symbolic Motors, a La Jolla-based luxury car dealership. The company was in the news recently when burglars smashed its front windows, “ran past the Bentleys and went straight for a display case with Breitling Bentley watches — a gold one is worth about $45,000”.
The above is an excerpt from Doug Porter’s daily column “The Starting Line“.