“Over $500,000 of illegal campaign contributions were made to buy a friend in the mayor’s office. It was an audacious plan. It worked. It actually worked!” said assistant U.S. Attorney Mark Pletcher on August 30, 2016, as he began his closing argument in the campaign corruption trial that has riveted San Diego, and included testimony from high level politicians such as San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Sheriff William Gore. According to federal prosecutors, Mexican business tycoon Jose Susumo Azano Matusra had plans to build a “Miami West” of upscale high-rise condos and high-end hotels on the San Diego waterfront or Chula Vista bayfront and just needed a friend in the mayor’s office to bring his vision to life. Azano, a foreign national is prohibited by law to contributing to a domestic election.
After a five-week trial before U.S. District Judge Michael Anello, a jury must now determine the fate of Azano, campaign services specialist Ravneet Singh, lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes, and Azano’s son, Edward. All are charged with conspiracy of making illegal campaign donations by a foreign national to the 2012 mayoral race of Bonnie Dumanis and Bob Filner, and of falsifying records to cover up the donations.
U.S. Attorney’s Case:
Attorney Pletcher, armed with an elaborate power point presentation and a seemingly endless amount of e-mails, invoices, checks, and wire transfers between Azano, Singh’s company, Election Mall, and the campaigns, described a plan of funneling illegal contributions through straw donors, in-kind services, and political action committees. Friends and family were recruited as straw donors to individually contribute $500, later receiving reimbursement with “envelopes stuffed with hundred dollar bills.” It was “cold, hard, untraceable cash” that was “purposefully calculated to obscure any trail leading back to Azano” said Pletcher. Hundreds of thousands of dollars for the in-kind services of social media guru Ravneet Singh was also paid with Azano money.
Other contributions were funneled via straw political action committees, with Marc Chase personally selected as the premier donor. Chase, owner of Symbolic Motor Corp., sold so many high end cars to Azano that Azano became known as Mr. Lamborgini. Chase was “summoned to Azano’s kitchen table” to discuss the plan, and shortly thereafter contributed $180,00 in 3 separate transactions to the San Diego County Democratic Party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and to an independent action committee. “It was $180,000 in one full swoop,” stated Pletcher, which was incredible as Chase was a person “who could not even be bothered to vote.” Azano then wrote a check to Symbolic for $180,000. Chase pled guilty and spent 10 hours on the witness stand, where he testified Azano asked him to make contributions and later reimbursed him. Pletcher also showed a transfer of money by Azano to his airplane company, Airsam, which then contributed $100,000 to the Dumanis campaign.
Attorney Pletcher concluded by saying Azano’s plan worked, and that only one week after Bob Filner’s victory, it was “time to cash in.” Azano brought design specialists from Dubai and held a catered Japanese dinner at his Coronado mansion, where Filner was presented with “Miami West.”
Defense Attorneys’ Case:
The defense attorneys countered the government’s case was not only untrue, but they failed to prove their clients actually knew Azano was a foreign national, a key element that must be found in order to convict. “Everyone believed Azano was a U.S. citizen or green card holder,” stated attorney Michael Lipman, who represents Singh, before going through a long list of people who testified to such belief, including Dumanis and Gore. Lipman listed reasons why such belief was reasonable, including: Azano has lived in Coronado for more than 20 years, his wife and children live in San Diego, he owns a business and airplane in the U.S., buys expensive cars in La Jolla with California license plates, and has a Miami condo.
The defense questioned why the prosecution failed to call crucial witnesses, most notably their star witness Ernie Encinas, who pled guilty early on in the investigation, and who the defense felt should have been front and center in this trial. A former vice detective with his own security business, Encinas was Azano’s security chief and go between for Azano and the campaigns. It was Encinas who recruited people to raise funds for his long-time friend Dumanis, had ambitions of becoming a power player in San Diego, and manipulated people into doing whatever he wanted insisted the defense.
Azano’s attorney, Michael Wynne, a graduate of Harvard Law School and flown in from Texas for this case, called Encinas “the linchpin” of the government’s case. Attorney Michael Lipman echoed this belief by telling the jury, “Ernie Encinas knew everything and the government chose not to call him. That is reasonable doubt! The government made a conscious decision not to call certain witnesses, and you should be asking yourself, why not?”
Attorney John Kinchen, who represent’s Azano’s son, Edward, went even further by playing tapes that were recorded by Filner’s campaign manager, Edward Clancy, in his cooperation agreement with the government. In response to Clancy’s questioning of what Azano receives from this, Encinas says, “He gets nothing. This is all for me. He (Azano) will go with who I push him towards.” Kinchen said, “This is the reason the government did not put Encinas on the stand. Encinas would be devastating to their case!” The tapes also reveal Encinas saying Azano is a resident, supporting Azano’s legal status.
In arguing specifically for Azano, Attorney Wynne repeatedly proclaimed Azano not guilty of any crime. “If Mr. Azano wanted to get involved, he could have just applied for a green card or had his wife contribute as much as she wanted as she is U.S. citizen,” said Wynne. He continued that it made no sense for Azano to develop in San Diego when he had plans to move his family to Miami. Money paid to Marc Chase was repayment of a $200,000 loan, and the $380,000 payment to Symbolic was for an exclusive Ghost Rolls Royce. In the most dramatic moment of closing, Attorney Wynne, emotional and near tears thanked the jury and the Azano family before concluding, “How do I have the honor to represent Mr. Azano?” What more could I have done?”
Attorney Lipman, in a passionate three hour closing for Ravneet Singh, argued the government could not prove Azano was paying for Election Mall services for the Dumanis or Filner campaigns. Azano did pay Singh one million dollars in a one-year time period, but it was for work done on the Cordero Mexican presidential election, Sempra Energy litigation, and another project Lipman explained. Funds paid by Azano simply went into one big pot.
Attorney Nancy Rosenfeld who represents Marco Polo Cortes, described the government/community affairs consultant and lobbyist, as a man who would never have risked everything he built and his good reputation to engage in campaign fraud. She asked the jury not to convict him simply because of his association with Encinas, and cautioned them to “not paint him with the same brush.” She said that in order to convict, Cortes must know Azano can’t contribute and has to know Azano did contribute, neither of which he knew. He delivered one check, but it was only illegal if he was reimbursed, which he wasn’t.
Attorney Kinchen spoke on behalf of Azano’s only son, Edward, known as Susu. He said Susu was “only here because he is his father’s son.” He described Susu as a 19-year old kid who was not interested in campaign issues, but solely interested in what 19-year olds are interested in. Kinchen denounced the main witness against Susu as a liar, having freely and repeatedly lied to FBI agents and then to the jury on the witness stand. He said the four witnesses the government used to show Susu reimbursed people made false statements to save themselves and were not believable. Kinchen closed by again saying that Susu was only there because he was his father’s son and if the government wanted to put a family through hell, “Than mission accomplished.”
In rebuttal, attorney Pletcher said the defendants were “all in” with the plan, were well aware Azano was a foreign national, and are blaming everyone else, before he again displayed the paper trail of evidence. The government did not call Encinas, “but the defense did not call him either.” The jury must not now speculate why he was not called.
After 10 hours of closing arguments, the case is now in the hands of the jury.
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