San Diego politicians returning donations from accused "campaign - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

San Diego politicians returning donations from accused "campaign guru"

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SAN DIEGO (CNS) - San Diego political figures began returning donations Wednesday that were made to their campaigns by a man accused of conspiring to funnel money from a foreign national into San Diego-area elections.

District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis was returning $700 provided to her campaign fund by former San Diego police Detective Ernesto Encinas and another $700 given by Encinas' wife, Sharon, campaign spokeswoman Jen Tierney told City News Service.

Dumanis is running for reelection in June.

Interim Mayor Todd Gloria returned $500 given to his City Council reelection campaign, according to the mayor's office. Ex-Councilman and current congressional candidate Carl DeMaio also gave back $500, according to his spokesman.

Meanwhile, Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, said he would return any donations from individuals who were named Tuesday in a federal complaint. Vargas would have to pay back $3,500, according to various news reports.

According to the complaint, Encinas and Ravneet Singh conspired to direct $500,000 of illegal foreign money into San Diego municipal and federal campaigns, primarily in 2012 and last year. A third man, San Diego-based lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes, was charged today with conspiracy to finance political campaigns with money from an illegal foreign source.

U-T San Diego -- which identified the foreign national as Jose Susumo Azano Matsura, a Mexican businessman with a home in Coronado -- reported that federal investigators were looking into donations to former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner, two-time mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher, Dumanis and DeMaio.

Singh, 41, is a self-styled "campaign guru" who is the proprietor of Washington, D.C.-based ElectionMall Inc., a company that provided social media services and other campaign and election products to political candidates throughout the world, according to court documents.

Encinas, the owner of a San Diego-based private security and consulting business, oversaw the protection detail of a person identified in the complaint only as "the Foreign National."

Federal authorities alleged that between 2011 and 2013, Singh and Encinas helped the foreign national illegally donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to a series of candidates for elected office, including during the 2012 San Diego mayoral election, a 2012 congressional campaign and the 2013 San Diego special mayoral election -- up to, but not after, last month.

Under federal law, foreign nationals are prohibited from making any contributions or expenditures in connection with any American electoral campaign, whether at the federal, state or local level.

Gloria had his campaign treasurer return a donation from Encinas, according to the mayor's office. Gloria became interim mayor after Filner -- plagued by allegations of sexual harassment and under investigation for possible misuse of city funds -- stepped down Aug. 30.

Gloria's spokeswoman, Katie Keach, told CNS that Gloria received one $500 check from Encinas that was not tied to bundled donations involved in the federal complaint.

Vargas said he was "shocked at the claims" and "offended by the actions of these individuals," if the allegations prove true.

"If any contributions did not come from the disclosed source, I was not aware of it," Vargas said. "Upon reading the Union Tribune, I immediately contacted the (Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee) and, out of an abundance of caution, urged its leaders to return funds received from those listed in the complaint. I have also requested that if any funds have been contributed to my past or current campaigns from said individuals, they be immediately returned."

Dave McCulloch, a spokesman for DeMaio's congressional campaign, said it also returned a donation.

"In light of the serious allegations made against the individuals named in the complaint, we searched our campaign database of over 9,000 donors and found a single $500 contribution from Ernesto Encinas dated in 2013," McCulloch said. "Because we believe it may be the same person, we opted to immediately return the contribution."

On Tuesday, Fletcher said he had no contact with the people named in the complaint.

Singh and Encinas are accused of knowingly using a series of increasingly complex techniques to hide the fact that the unnamed foreign national was the true source of illicit campaign funds.

The complaint alleges Encinas, 57, helped mask the foreign national's contributions through the use of shell companies, among other devices.

Similarly, Singh allegedly used his expertise to facilitate the donation of social media services to political candidates the foreign national favored.

The complaint alleges that those contributions -- sometimes classified as "in-kind contributions" -- were not reported in any campaign filings and totaled nearly $300,000.

Court papers allege Encinas wanted the next mayor to fire the chief of police and replace him with a person of Encinas' choosing in exchange for the foreign national's financial help.

According to the U.S. Attorney's Office, Cortes, 44, was arrested in the Little Italy section of San Diego Tuesday. Court documents describe him as a business associate and friend of Encinas.

Cortes made his initial appearance at the U.S. District Courthouse Wednesday, and faces five years behind bars and a $250,000 fine if convicted.

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