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Three men charged with funneling illegal campaign funds

SAN DIEGO — Just as this city is recovering from the scandal that drove Bob Filner from the mayor's office, along comes another political firestorm. But instead of sexual harassment, it involves allegations of illegal contributions flowing into mayoral campaigns.

A retired San Diego police officer, the owner of a Washington, D.C.-based election services business and another man have been charged with conspiring to funnel more than $500,000 in illegal contributions from an unidentified Mexican businessman into recent political campaigns.

Ravneet Singh, 41, owner of ElectionMall Inc., and retired police detective Ernesto Encinas, 57, conspired to steer the money into independent committees supporting candidates in the mayoral elections of 2012 and 2013, among other elections, according to a federal complaint unsealed Tuesday.

A third defendant was identified by prosecutors late Wednesday as Marco Polo Cortes, 44, of San Diego, a political lobbyist who allegedly made contact with representatives of candidates.

Under U.S. law, foreign nationals are prohibited from contributing to any American political campaign.

The complaint does not identify the candidates, but appears to refer to Filner and Dist. Atty. Bonnie Dumanis, among others. Dumanis was defeated in the 2012 mayoral primary; Filner was elected in the runoff that fall.

The complaint contains no assertion that the candidates knew of the contributions to the independent committees or that any candidate met with Encinas, who allegedly acted as the go-between for the businessman and the committees. The businessman has been locked in high-stakes litigation for several years with San Diego-based Sempra Energy.

On Wednesday, four local politicians returned contributions from Encinas: Acting Mayor Todd Gloria returned $500, congressional candidate Carl DeMaio returned $500, and Rep. Juan Vargas (D-San Diego) returned $3,500. Dumanis, who is seeking a fourth term as district attorney, returned $1,400 received from Encinas and his wife.

The charges come as City Council members David Alvarez, a Democrat, and Kevin Faulconer, a Republican, square off in a Feb. 11 mayoral runoff. The charges do not mention Alvarez or Faulconer or any committees supporting their candidacies.

Filner, who resigned Aug. 30, is serving a 90-day sentence of home confinement after pleading guilty to three counts of mistreating women.

The case filed this week has raised questions for Dumanis.

"As D.A., [Dumanis] is in a 'Caesar's wife' situation where any hint of undue influence weighs heavier," said Carl Luna, political science professor at San Diego Mesa College.

A campaign consultant for Dumanis issued a statement late Tuesday saying that the case "appears to be related to contributions to an independent expenditure committee and not our campaign. Our campaign followed the law and did not coordinate with this independent committee."

The complaint says that during the 2012 mayoral primary, "a local news source published an article noting the Foreign National's large expenditures and implicitly questioning whether he was eligible to donate. The article noted that the Foreign National was a Mexican citizen."

In May 2012, just before the mayoral primary election, the weekly San Diego City Beat reported that a political action committee, San Diegans for Bonnie Dumanis for Mayor 2012, had received at least $100,000 from an aviation firm controlled by Susumo Azano, described as a Mexican national living in Coronado.

Azano has "bankrolled lawsuits in a land dispute against Sempra Energy in Mexico," the newspaper reported.

According to court documents, Azano is involved with legal disputes with Sempra in U.S. federal court, Mexican federal court, Mexican state court and Mexican agrarian reform court. At issue is 250 acres that Sempra owns next to its liquid-natural gas terminal near Ensenada but that Azano asserts he should own under Mexican law concerning squatters' rights.

Efforts to reach Azano were unsuccessful.

In the complaint, one of the illegal contributions from the defendants was $100,000 for social media services. Another contribution of $100,000 was made by the same Foreign National to the same committee, the complaint alleges.

Republican political strategist Kevin Spillane, who headed fundraising for the independent committee backing Dumanis, is quoted in the City Beat story as saying that the contributions were legal because Azano has a green card. The federal complaint says the Foreign National does not have a green card.

District attorney candidate Robert Brewer, a former Los Angeles prosecutor who has been in private practice in San Diego for more than 20 years, said Dumanis "owes the public a full accounting of all of her connections to the defendants."

"The obvious question is why the Foreign National cited in the complaint was so keen on illegally funneling cash to her mayoral campaign," Brewer said. "Like everyone else in San Diego, we await her explanation."

Disclosure records show that Filner received a direct contribution from Encinas during the 2012 election. The complaint indicates that the two defendants made donations in amounts similar to those received and disclosed by committees that backed Filner during the mayoral race.

Encinas, after retiring from the Police Department, opened a business offering security services, including clients such as bars and downtown businesses. He also provided security to the unidentified Mexican businessman.

A 2011 story by the website Politico described Singh as a "self-styled campaign guru" who claimed an impressive list of U.S. and international political and business clients, including Microsoft.

Singh was arrested and is free on bail pending a Feb. 4 court date.  Singh's attorney told reporters that the charges were based on a misreading of campaign law by officials. Encinas was not arrested and might appear in court Thursday.

In the criminal case filed here, Singh and Encinas used a series of schemes, including shell companies and so-called straw donors, to mask the involvement of the Mexican businessman, according to the complaint. Also charged were Singh's firm and unspecified others.

The complaint alleges that Encinas demanded that one candidate, if elected, fire San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne in exchange for receiving a donation, which apparently was never made.

Political consultants, who were unaligned with any candidates, said that shows a lack of familiarity with politics.

"Nobody in their right mind, nobody, would think that Lansdowne would be fired because a contributor to a political action committee wants it," consultant John Kern said.

Consultant John Dadian added: "Politics is not brain surgery. But this stuff was really ham-fisted."

tony.perry@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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