A Mexican billionaire tried to “buy” San Diego mayoral candidates as part of his surefire plan to turn the San Diego waterfront into “Miami West.” Jose Susumo Azano Matsura, his son, and another associate were found guilty by a jury last week after a six-week trial.
The criminal complaint tried to obscure the recipients of Azano’s donations, but they were identified in court as Democratic former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, failed Republican mayoral candidate Bonnie Dumanis, and other candidates. Dumanis is now the San Diego County District Attorney.
Filner, one of the candidates helped by Azano’s scheme, eventually won the race. But the Democrat had to resign shortly after multiple allegations of sexual harassment, including that he grabbed women at campaign events. He was eventually sentenced to 90 days of home confinement and three years of probation, according to CNN.
Indeed, officials said during the trial that it was their investigation of Filner that put them on to Azano in the first place.
Azano needed mayoral support for his plan to develop the San Diego waterfront, where he planned a $500 million development that was to include a luxury marina and a high-rise hotel.
“It was an audacious plan,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Schopler told jurors. “And it almost worked.”
The Jalisco native made his money in security technology. He has a much higher profile in Mexico than the U.S., according to the California Patch, which reports his Security Tracking Devices SA de CV company was also embroiled in a fraud investigation in Mexico. He also has a long-standing feud with Sempra Energy.
Azano was helped in his San Diego venture by his own son, Edward Susumo Azano Hester, a luxury car dealer named Marc Chase and others, who recruited people to make donations to candidates on Azano’s behalf and even did so in their own names. (Chase pleaded guilty to eight misdemeanor counts relating to the case in 2014.)
“Once Azano decided to support a candidate, he and his co-conspirators designed secret, illicit methods of contributing to the candidate’s campaign, knowing that Azano could not finance the campaigns directly because of campaign contribution/donation limits and his status as a foreign national,” the complaint said.
At one point, Azano and associate Ravneet Singh gave campaigns unreported in-kind contributions of services through Singh’s campaign social media services company, Electionmail. It was really Azano who funded the services through a Mexico-based company.
Azano’s exact net worth is hard to pin down, but the reported billionaire owns two houses in California and others around the country. His interest in San Diego politics began in 2011 when he began trying to buy their loyalty with large donations, the complaint said.
On Dec. 21, 2011, one of the straw donors recruited by Azano’s son sent out a plea to his friends.
“I need to get a $500 check from you to help Susu [the son] and His Father support the soon to be Mayor Bonnie Dumanis,” he wrote. “We will give you the cash right away so you won’t lose any money but your support is appreciated and very much needed.”
In February 2012, Azano set up a $75,000 in-kind donation for Dumanis, through Singh’s company. An email between Electionmail, Singh, and Azano referred to it as the “betty boo project.” Azano also set up an independent expenditure committee to support her, funnelling $100,000 into it.
During the trial Dumanis, the failed mayoral candidate, testified that she didn’t recall much about her interactions with Azano, despite his hefty contributions to her campaign. They were introduced by a retired San Diego police detective who pleaded guilty to his involvement in the Azano scheme in 2014.
“Given the dynamics of the campaign... it’s kind of irregular that a campaign and a candidate would be unaware of such large donations being given to their campaign,” Chris Crotty, a San Diego political consultant, told The Daily Beast. “But that’s what Bonnie testified to in the trial.”
Dumanis lost the mayoral race. But Azano and his cohort were playing both sides, just in case. And his other bet won.
Another $120,000 of Azano’s money went to Filner, through a separate independent expenditure committee that supported him. Azano gave Filner an additional $191,955 in in-kind contributions through Electionmail.
But these large sums are rare in San Diego politics, which still has a small-town feel.
“San Diego political circles are small and small-dollar. And everyone who is not a small donor, everybody knows and everybody asks,” Crotty said. “So you have this new guy pop up on the scene... and that just doesn’t happen.”
Prosecutors brought in countless invoices, bank records, emails, and wire transfers to make the case.
“The jury’s verdict confirms that a foreign national must not attempt to influence a United States election,” said Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Blair Perez.
Singh and Azano’s son were also found guilty of some crimes relating to the scheme. Azano was convicted on 36 counts.
“I am absolutely confident that we will win on appeal,” his attorney, Michael Wynne, told reporters after the guilty verdict. But Wynne did not return a request for comment in time for publication.
The 51-year-old Azano will be sentenced on Dec. 12. His waterfront plans remain unfinished.