How to uncover a scandal from your couch

by Brad Racino and Joe Yerardi | inewsource

News broke in San Diego last week about a mysterious foreign national bent on influencing San Diego politics by illegally funneling money to political campaigns through a retired San Diego police detective and an undisclosed “straw donor.” Now, the politicians on the receiving end of the tainted funds are scrambling to distance themselves from the scandal.

The main piece of information that started it all was an unsealed FBI complaint.

Fifteen pages in length, the report named only the detective, Ernesto Encinas, and a self-described “campaign guru” in DC, Ravneet Singh, as conspirators. The names of everyone else involved were not disclosed. Instead, politicians were “candidates,” the moneymen were called “the Straw Donor” and “the Foreign National,” and informants were labeled “CIs.”

It didn’t take long for reporters to piece together clues — mainly by combing through publicly-accessible information from the San Diego City Clerk’s website — to uncover who was involved.

Here’s how we tackled it:

Part One

Candidate 1

From the above FBI complaint:

  • Around May 2012, Ernesto Encinas and the unnamed “Foreign National” created a PAC (Political Action Committee).
  • Encinas invested $3,000 into this PAC and the Foreign National invested $100,000 “through a United States-based shell corporation.”
  • This PAC spent $114,000 in favor of “Candidate 1, a candidate for the office of mayor of San Diego during the 2012 primary election cycle.”
  • Between May 20 and May 31, 2012, the PAC spent approximately $86,000 on mailers and related services.

That’s more than enough information to identify the Foreign National, the PAC and the Candidate. Here’s how we started:

There were four main candidates for mayor in 2012: Carl DeMaio, Bonnie Dumanis, Bob Filner, and Nathan Fletcher (it’s safe to assume, for now, that the FBI probe did not involve little-known 2012 mayoral candidates John “Woody” Woodrum or Steven H. Greenwald). So Encinas almost certainly donated $3,000 into a PAC supporting one of those four people. That information would be readily available on the City Clerk’s website. (story continues below after screenshots)

www.sandiego.gov/city-clerk/city-clerk1

city-clerk2

city-clerk3

city-clerk4

city-clerk5

Select “2012” from the drop-down menu. Select “Export Amended.” This will download a Microsoft Excel file with all the campaign expenditure and contribution information for the 2012 mayor’s race. Once in that file — on the first sheet labeled “A-Contributions” — you search for “Encinas.” Boom, there he is.

contrib-excel

Encinas donated to a PAC called “San Diegans for Bonnie Dumanis for Mayor 2012, Sponsored by Airsam N492RM, LLC.” If you look into that PAC on the same sheet, you’ll find a $100,000 donation from “Airsam N492RM, LLC.” This jives with the second bullet point from the complaint ($3,000 from Encinas, $100,000 from a shell company). Then we used Wysk.com, a business research website, to look into the LLC.

WYSK1

WYSK2

WYSK3

WYSK4

The LLC is registered to Susumo Azano, a Mexican billionaire. Now to verify.

The fourth bullet point above says the PAC in question spent approximately $86,000 on mailers and related services. If you go back to the same Excel file where we found the Encinas donation, and switch to the tab labeled “D-Expenditure” at the bottom, it’ll bring up all new data. You then filter the column with all the PAC names until you isolate all the expenditures from the “San Diegans for Bonnie Dumanis…” committee.

What you’ll get is all the expenses this PAC made in support of Dumanis. If you take into consideration the dates mentioned in the federal complaint (May 20 – May 31, 2012), and only look at expenditures made during that time period, you’ll get $86,478 spent on “Mailers” and “Mailer Graphic Design.”

contrib-excel2

So now we have the name of Candidate One (Bonnie Dumanis), the name of the PAC (San Diegans for Bonnie Dumanis, sponsored by Airsam N492RM, LLC) and the name of the “Foreign National” (Susumo Azano).

Candidate 3
(skipping past Candidate 2, you’ll see why later)

What do we glean from the info provided under the section of Candidate 3?

  • Around October 2012, the “Straw Donor” wrote a $120,000 check to an independent expenditure committee that favored Candidate 3. This money, according to the complaint, came from the Foreign National (Susumo) through the straw donor.
  • Shortly after, the same “Straw Donor” wrote another check, this time for $30,000, “this time to a political party committee associated with Candidate 3’s campaign.”

That’s enough to go on.

Head back to that same file we were working on before. Since $120,000 is a good chunk of change, it’s likely there weren’t a lot of these size donations made during the campaign cycle. Sure enough, there is only one:

contrib-excel3

There is one $120,000 donation to “San Diegans in Support of Bob Filner for Mayor – 2012.” It was Sept. 27, 2012 (remember the complaint said “around October 2012″). It was from a company called “South Beach Aquistions, LLC.” If we head back to the website we used before to search for LLCs, we look up South Beach and find it’s registered to Marc Chase.

SouthBeach

A few minutes on Google and we learn that Marc Chase owns a luxury car dealership in La Jolla — Symbolic Motor Car Company (further research shows Chase owns a ton of LLCs, and many of those LLCs have had their status ‘suspended’ by the Franchise Tax Board). It looks like Marc Chase is the straw donor, but we can’t be sure yet.

Next, we took a leap and ran Chase through the Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer, an online tool for tracking money in politics. We put Chase’s name into the explorer and searched for any money he may have given in the 2011/2012 election cycle.

IE

There’s a hit!

Hit

Looks like Chase gave $30,000 on Sept. 30, 2012, to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. So Chase is the straw donor.

And Candidate 3 is Bob Filner.

Part Two

As a recap, we now know the name of the foreign national (Susumo Azano), his independent expenditure committee (Airsam), the straw donor (Marc Chase), Candidate 1 (Bonnie Dumanis), and Candidate 3 (Bob Filner).

Here are the main takeaways from the complaint as it relates to Candidate 2:

First, the complaint identifies Candidate 2 as “a candidate for federal elective office during the 2012 general election cycle.”

Second, the complaint alleged that “bank records show that in or about September and October 2012, the Foreign National gave money to the Straw Donor… While the various checks cleared, the Straw Donor wrote a $30,000 check to a political party committee associated with Candidate 2’s campaign.”

So, we know five things about Candidate 2:

  • He was a candidate for federal office.
  • He was running in the 2012 general election.
  • It was Ernesto Encinas who approached a representative of his campaign about a contribution.
  • The straw donor — who we have since identified as Marc Chase — gave $30,000 to a political party committee allied with Candidate 2’s campaign.
  • The $30,000 contribution came in either September or October, 2012.

The first clue — ‘federal office’ — tells us that we want to search campaign contributions at the federal level. All campaign contributions at the federal level are hosted on FEC.gov, the government-run website for the Federal Election Commission. And while that site does allow for limited searching of campaign contributions, there are several more user-friendly options out there.

One is OpenSecrets.org — the website of the nonprofit, open-government group the Center for Responsive Politics. So, surf on over to OpenSecrets.org (people still say “surf,” right?).

Select “POLITICIANS & ELECTIONS.” Scroll down the page and select “Donor Lookup.”

OS-1

Now, what else do we know about the alleged transaction involving Candidate 2?

The candidate was running in the 2012 election. So, select the check box for “2012.” We know Marc Chase (or one of his companies) is the straw donor. So, type “Chase, Marc” in the search bar.

Donor2

Hit search.

donor3

And what do you know? Right there at the top is Marc Chase of Symbolic Motors. He gave $30,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on September 30, 2012. That fits the time frame hinted at in the complaint.

So, we know the political committee Chase donated to… but we still don’t know the identity of Candidate 2.

What else does the complaint tell us? Well, it tells us that Ernesto Encinas was the individual who approached Candidate 2 about making a donation. So, who did Encinas donate to in the 2012 election cycle? If you search his name on OpenSecrets.org, you get two contributions— one in June, 2011 and one in August, 2012 — to Juan Vargas, now the San Diego-area Congressman.

donor4

Circumstantial evidence suggests that Candidate 2 is Juan Vargas.

More searching

That’s about the extent of what we can uncover from the federal complaint, but there is more you can do on your own now that we know the players.

For example, we can explore the world of Susumo Azano and look at his connections. Did any of them give to the same candidates? The short answer is yes, and here’s a quick way to do that:

Go back to Wysk.com and type in Susumo’s name. Here are just three of his LLCs:

Wysk11

Margarita Hester de Azano and Elizabeth Jovita Lugo are named as officers for some of the LLCs. If we go back to the San Diego City Clerk’s website and download the 2013 campaign contribution data, we’ll find these two as having donated to Bonnie Dumanis’ re-election campaign. See?

lugo

Margarita

If we look into Marc Chase a bit more, we find that his employees have donated to Dumanis as well. How do we know the names of his employees? Simply by browsing through his Symbolic Motor Car Company website:

symbolic1

Pop some of those names into the databases we’ve used and explore.

There’s obviously a lot more to look at, but we hope this exercise has helped you understand a bit more about investigating through public websites. To dig deeper, try your hand at submitting a California Public Records Act request to any local or state government entity for almost any information they keep. If you need a primer on the CPRA, head to our resources page to learn more about the law and even file a request yourself. Then let us know how it goes!

We'll let you know when big things happen.

About Brad Racino

Brad Racino is a reporter, producer and editor at inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, email bradracino@inewsource.org or call (619) 594-3569.
  • Pat Flannery

    Thank you. You did more for “open government” in this one post than Donna Frye did in 10 years. It proves the old proverb: “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. It is better to teach the public to check up on their government than to do it for them. Keep it up.

    • bradracino

      Thanks Pat. Really happy people are enjoying this post… hopefully it spawns some more investigative reporters!

  • Lori Saldaña

    Thank you for the tutorial on researching campaign contributions. Access to information about contributors is helpful, but we need more than transparency about Who is contributing. We need to publicly finance campaigns.

    Unfortunately, a ballot measure would be overwhelmed by the very money such an effort seeks to nullify. And the elected officials who rely on these finance streams would never willingly put public financing to a public vote.

    It’s not just the candidates who spend hours every day raising money. This activity continues after people are serving in office. Instead of meeting constituents, doing research and working on policy, elected officials are on the phone dialing for dollars. The only ones who do not are independently wealthy, so we are faced with a choice of rich representatives or those paid for by special-interests.

    It has also created a whole industry of people moving money around to influence policy and put pressure on elected officials.

    Increasingly we are represented by elected officials based on personal wealth or the highest bidders vs other qualifications for office. Is it any wonder we wind up with crumbling infrastructure but expanded convention centers and beautiful hi rises for tourists and out-of-town investors?

    • bradracino

      Thanks, Lori!

  • http://www.sdmjs.org Michael Russell

    Thanks for showing everyone the tools to use to detect big money corruption in our local government.

    Why do these rich people use their own names, don’t they know that they need false identities? Now nobody will take their money for fear of being exposed. (P.S. I always had a feeling Dumanis was dirty)

  • Ed Wigdahl

    You are spot right on Lori, as always.

    Pat Flannery, as usual, was nearly right. But in San Diego–“feed a man a fish”, and if caught in SD Bay, he’ll likely sue you for trying to poison him. “Teach a man to fish”, and you’ll likely be charged with a felony for teaching without a credential.

    I heard Brad Racino and Joe Yerardi on KPBS and it was the most educational and entertaining news story I’ve heard in years. You gave step by step instructions to investigative reporters wanna-be’s and our community will be better off. Do you have a teaching credential?

    Keep it up.

    Ed Wigdahl

    • bradracino

      Ed,

      Thanks so much. We had a really great time producing that piece, and I think it’s safe to say you’ll be hearing a lot more of this type of reporting in the near future.

      -Brad

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  • William Edward Miller

    Outstanding detective work.

    • bradracino

      Thanks!

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