Former San Diego police detective Ernesto Encinas accused of conspiracy faces federal judge

SAN DIEGO - A former San Diego police detective charged with conspiracy for allegedly funneling illegal foreign campaign donations into San Diego election campaigns appeared before a federal judge Thursday.

Ernesto Encinas, 57, is charged along with area lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes and a Washington, D.C., man, Ravneet Singh.

Appearing before federal Magistrate Judge William Gallo Thursday afternoon, Encinas was allowed to remain free on his own recognizance without supervision. Gallo told him to stay within the continental United States. A preliminary hearing was set for Feb. 4 and arraignment for Feb. 18.

Encinas told the judge that he had already turned in his firearms and agreed to surrender his passport.

According to a criminal complaint, Encinas, Cortes and Singh helped direct cash from a foreign national into several local campaigns over the past two years, including the recent mayoral races.

It is illegal for non-citizens to contribute to U.S. election campaigns.

News reports identified Jose Susumo Azano Matsura, a Mexican businessman with a home in Coronado, as the foreign national who supplied the money.

On Thursday, the San Diego County Democratic Party announced it would return a donation from one of the three defendants. County party Chairwoman Francine Busby issued a statement, saying her organization learned through news reports that "a local business owner" who made a contribution to them in 2012 was "allegedly involved the scheme."

Busby said no one in the county Democratic organization had heard of the men before.

"We stand ready to return the contribution or direct it to the state Treasury, depending on which is more appropriate as we learn more about the case through both our own investigation and the ongoing prosecution," Busby said. "We call on the perpetrators to be brought to justice as quickly as possible and will fully assist the U.S. Attorney's Office in getting to the bottom of this case."

The filing of the charges against the defendants prompted several local politicians to return campaign donations from Encinas. They include Interim San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, Rep. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, and former San Diego Councilman Carl DeMaio, who is running for Congress this year.

News reports also linked former San Diego Mayor Bob Filner and two-time mayoral candidate Nathan Fletcher to donations from Encinas, though Fletcher denied knowledge of any.

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

Singh, 41, is a self-styled "campaign guru" who owns Washington, D.C.-based ElectionMall Inc., a company that provided campaigns with social media services and other  election help worldwide, according to court documents.

Singh and Encinas, along with Cortes, are accused of knowingly using complex techniques to hide the fact that a foreign national was the source of illicit campaign funds.

The complaint alleges Encinas helped mask contributions through the use of shell companies, among other devices.

Similarly, Singh allegedly helped get social media services donated to political candidates favored by the foreign national.

The complaint alleges those contributions -- sometimes classified as "in-kind contributions" -- were not reported in campaign filings and were valued at 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 today and is scheduled to make another appearance Friday.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Feb. 4 for Singh.

The defendants face five years behind bars and a $250,000 fine if convicted.

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