Trial begins for billionaire accused of trying to buy 2012 San Diego mayor's election

Jose Azano accused of $600,000 illegal donations
Posted at 7:08 PM, Jul 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-07-27 22:08:07-04

The Mexican billionaire who allegedly wanted to turn San Diego's waterfront into "Miami West" is standing trial for what a federal prosecutor called his "secret and illegal" attempt to buy a political ally.

Deputy U.S. Attorney Andrew Schopler told a federal jury Wednesday that Jose Susumo Azano envisioned a yacht marina, a 5-star hotel and luxury condos in his $1-billion dollar plan to change the city's image. It was a plan Schopler said would make Azano even richer.

There was a hitch:  Schopler told a jury during opening arguments that Azano felt San Diego was being "held back by trailer park losers that had a small mentality".

Schopler said Azano needed someone in the mayor's office to make his ambitious vision a reality.

Azano, his son "Su-Su", and two others are accused of conspiring to make that happen.

Schopler said they did so by funneling funds from Azano's accounts to friends and family members who would write campaign donation checks in amounts up to the $500 limit allowed by law.  

Schopler told jurors Azano's donations first went to the Bonnie Dumanis campaign, a campaign that went by the code name "Betty Boop".  He said Dumanis visited Azano at his Coronado home December 19,2011 when her campaig for mayor was desperately in need of funds.  Azano promised $100,000 to her campaign, according to the prosecutor, who claimed Dumanis was "receptive".

Schopler detailed a series of e-mails he said would show Azano and his co-conspirators knew what they were doing was illegal, including one that said $7,500 was "for Bonnie".

Schopler also told jurors that Azano and his co-conspirators tried to find a super-PAC (political action committee) that could put $100,000 of Azano's money into the Dumanis campaign.  One of the people they approached was political consultant John Waino. Schopler told jurors Waino called Dumanis to ask about the money. She was silent. "A long, uncomfortable silence" Schopler said.  Schopler quoted Waino saying "That money had hair on it. It was toxic."

When Dumanis didn't make the cut in the June primary, Schopler said the evidence will show Azano began funnelling money to the campaign of Bob Filner. Schopler said an informant "wore a wire"recording conversations with Marco Polo Cortes, a city hall lobbyist who was on Filner's campaign committee.

Cortes is also on trial.

Cortes allegedly worked closely with Ernesto "Ernie" Encinas, a former San Diego Police Officer who had a security business.  Schopler said there is evidence that Encinas and Cortes found ways to gt money into Filner's campaign, even though Cortes had repeated warnings that it was illegal to take campaign money from foreign nationals.

After Filner won the election, Schopler said Azano arrived at his inaguration in a Rolls Royce that was parked illegally on the grass. Azano was the first to shake Filner's hand.

Schopler said the evidence will show days after the election Filner sat in Azano's house, where he learned about "Miami West"

"Filner's demise left Azano looking for a new politician to buy," Schopler told the jury, saying "It was an audacious plan...It almost worked."

Azano's lawyer told jurors "This sounds like a plot out of a James Bond movie."  Michael Wynne said the government has been trying to "get" Azano for years, but never had enough to arrest him.

"He's not an idiot," Wynne said of his client, noting Azano had to be smart to make millions as a businessman. "Why would he get on the Bonnie Dumanis bandwagon when she was losing by a long-shot?" he asked.

Wynne said Azano's involvement "doesn't make sense"and claimed Miami West is a concept made up by the government.

"They don't have enough evidence to connect the dots," Wynne said.

The attorney for alleged co-conspirator Ravneet Singh, who ran an online election services consulting firm, said his client did legal business with Azano in Mexico, when the billionaire got involved with a political campaign.  Singh did some limited work with Dumanis as a favor to Ernesto Encinas.

Encinas is a former San Diego Police Officer who started a security firm.  Singh's attorney said Encinas, who has already made a plea deal in the case, was an instigator.  "He wanted to be a player in San Diego politics," he said.

The attorney was critical of Encinas' role in helping the government build it's case against his client.  "Ernie Encinas would have jumped off the federal courthouse building if the government told him to."

An attorney for Cortes called Encinas a "manipulator" and said becoming friends with Encinas was "the worst thing that ever happened to Marco."

One of the government's first witnesses painted a picture of Azano's jets-etting life.  Investment banker Anthony Bufinsky testified Azano often flew in his private jets to business meetings in Miami, London, Paris and Dubai to make deals with other high-rollers. Many of those deals were in excess of a billion dollars.

But Bufinsky said Azano has a less-than favorable impression of San Diego. Azano considered the city's infrastructure "dilapidated" and it's people "not up with the times"  Bufinsky testified Azano loved Miami because it is "up to date, modern and chic".

Azano wanted San Diego to be more like Miami.  Bufinsky testified Azano wanted a deep-trenched harbor for yachts, 5-star high-rise hotels, and other luxury amenities as well as an expanded convention center.

Bufinsky testified he helped Azano connect with the Kaisen Company, a group of developers from the middle-east, that planned a "world-class" presentation of their vision for San Diego's waterfront.

The presentation was for then-Mayor Bob Filner.  The meeting did not take place at San Diego City Hall, but at Azano's waterfront home in Coronado, Bufinsky said.

Ernie Encinas would bring Filner to Azano's home for the meeting.

Bufinsky will return to the stand tomorrow, when the second day of what is expected to be a 6-week trial, gets underway.