Feds: Azano wanted 'Miami West' on SD bay
By Kristina Davis11:06 A.M.JAN. 24, 2014Updated6:57 P.M.
SAN DIEGO — A foreign businessman accused of using others to illegally donate $500,000 to San Diego political campaigns wanted to develop the San Diego bayfront and turn the city into a West Coast version of Miami, a federal prosecutor said in court Friday.
“What did the foreign national want out of all this? What was his goal? Really the answer was he wanted to develop here in San Diego, and he sought political clout to help him in doing so,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Perry.
The prosecutor’s statement for the first time specifies a larger motive behind the financing scheme — creating California’s version of Miami’s tropical playground.
While federal authorities have not identified the donor, court documents contain enough detail to indicate it is José Susumo Azano Matsura, a wealthy Mexican citizen who supplies surveillance equipment to the Mexican military and owns construction companies based in the state of Jalisco.
The prosecutor said a candidate — who sources have identified as former Mayor Bob Filner — told the businessman that he didn’t have jurisdiction over the bayfront, but he may be able to help by holding up development of the Navy Broadway Complex so the businessman could gain control of the lease.
It was not clear if the meeting took place when Filner was a congressman or after he was elected mayor in November 2012.
In the businessman’s words, he “wanted to turn San Diego into Miami West,” Perry said.
FBI agents this week served search warrants on two homes associated with Azano in Coronado, FBI spokesman Darrell Foxworth said.
An effort has been under way for years to develop a hotel-office-retail project at the foot of Broadway where the southwest regional Navy headquarters are.
U-T San Diego Publisher Douglas F. Manchester won a 99-year lease from the Navy in 2006 to develop the land, and he has proposed the $1.2 billion Manchester Pacific Gateway project.
The deal gives the Navy for free a new headquarters building in exchange for Manchester being awarded the development rights. The project has stalled, in part because of litigation involving a citizens group and the California Coastal Commission.
Manchester on Friday urged further investigation into the matter.
“I’ve always questioned why Bob Filner as congressman and Susan Davis as congresswoman and others would hold up such an incredibly wonderful project that we have designed for the waterfront,” he said. “I’ve spent close to $10 million in eight years fighting the lawsuits. Now it’s obvious it has been in a roundabout way stymied by elected representatives and even possibly the California Coastal Commission.”
He said the project is one that both the Navy and city deserves.
“It’s very, very disheartening for me for it to be derailed by a political process that is corrupt,” Manchester said.
A representative for Davis did not return messages seeking comment.
Bob Nelson, chairman of the San Diego Port Commission, which oversees the bayfront from San Diego to Imperial Beach, said he does not know Azano although he said he may have met him at one of many development and trade conferences he has attended in Mexico and elsewhere.
“I’ve been in lots of meetings with government officials and business leaders and met hundreds and thousands of people in various situations,” he said.
Nelson, who is traveling in Europe, said he has followed the unfolding investigation this week only peripherally. “I don’t recognize the names of any of the players,” he said.
San Diego lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes, retired San Diego police Detective Ernesto Encinas and campaign services manager Ravneet Singh are charged with using ploys to hide the foreign source of the half-million dollars donated to several San Diego politicians, including Filner, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and an as-yet-unidentified federal candidate on the November 2012 ballot. It is against the law for non-U.S. citizens to contribute to campaigns at local, state and national levels.
The prosecutor also noted in court that days before Singh was arrested, he tried to buy classified information from someone he thought was a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent but turned out to be an undercover FBI agent. Perry did not elaborate further on what information Singh was allegedly seeking or why. His lawyer did not return a call for comment.
Singh, 41, who owns ElectionMall, based in Washington, D.C., was allowed at a hearing this week to put up property to secure a $250,000 bond to allow his release from jail.
The prosecutor’s statements Friday were made during a morning hearing to decide bail for Cortes, 44, who was arrested Tuesday on a conspiracy charge. He has been held without bail because it took an FBI SWAT team and negotiator to get him to surrender during his arrest at his Little Italy home.
Perry said he later learned that Cortes didn’t initially surrender because he was getting advice from a lawyer.
Still, he called Cortes somewhat of a flight risk, saying the “proof is strong” in the case and the charge against him is aggravated because as a lobbyist Cortes should know the rules surrounding political donations.
The prosecutor said that a representative of a candidate emailed Cortes the rules against foreign funding, and Cortes forwarded that email to another co-conspirator and told someone else they could get in trouble for what they were doing.
He also pointed to two DUIs Cortes got in 2005 and 2007, noting that he failed to appear in court on those cases twice and racked up 15 probation violations.
“That indicates someone with complete disregard for the judicial process,” said U.S. Magistrate Judge William Gallo.
The judge said he would consider a roughly $100,000 bond secured by property. Cortes, who appeared in a white jail jumpsuit and shackles, remained jailed and is set to appear in court again Tuesday to give his family time to come up with appropriate property to cover the bond.
Cortes’ lawyer, Charles Guthrie, said the complaint remains vague as to his client’s alleged role in the scheme. He pointed to Cortes’ long career history in the county and his large, supportive family, who were seated in court, as a reason to reduce bail.
Cortes’ family declined to comment after the hearing.
Encinas, 57, made his first court appearance Thursday and was allowed to remain free on his own recognizance.
He retired in 2009 from the San Diego Police Department after a 31-year career and started his own security consulting firms, working mostly with nightclubs and bars. He also provided security for Azano.
The federal complaint said Encinas agreed to take part in the scheme so the new mayor would fire Police Chief Bill Lansdowne. Encinas apparently wanted a chief who was more friendly with downtown entertainment issues and alcohol licenses.
On Friday, the FBI also confirmed that a search warrant was served Wednesday at the luxury La Jolla car dealership co-owned by Marc Chase, who has been linked to the scheme by a source close to the investigation. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service was also involved in the search at Symbolic Motor Car Co.
Federal authorities said the illegal donations were made through a straw donor, and Chase’s contributions of $60,000 to the local Democratic Party and national Democratic campaign committee match the amount mentioned in court documents. The groups this week moved to return the funds. Chase also made a $120,000 contribution to a campaign committee supporting Filner for mayor in 2012. That amount also matched the amount mentioned in the complaint.Staff writers Jeff McDonald, Mark Walker and Lori Weisberg contributed to this report.http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2014/Jan ... o-bayfront