District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis released a letter of recommendation Wednesday that she wrote for the son of a campaign contributor who has been indicted on charges of making illegal campaign contributions to her and other local politicians. Dumanis called it “much ado about nothing.”
The letter was written to the president of the University of San Diego recommending the school admit Susumo Azano, Jr., son of Mexican billionaire Jose Susumo Azano Matsura.
inewsource, KPBS and a number of other media organizations have pressed Dumanis for the letter since it was mentioned in a federal court hearing on Azano Matsura’s case in the beginning of June. The media coalition signed a final legal request for the letter Monday, threatening to sue the District Attorney if she did not comply by Tuesday at 5 p.m.
The news organizations have contended that the public is entitled to see the letter under the California Public Records Act. The letter carried particular relevance given the allegations against Azano Jr.’s father.
Dumanis had refused to comply with requests to produce the letter, citing privacy concerns by the family and a protective order in federal court, among other reasons.
U-T San Diego requested letters of recommendation written by other elected officials, specifically, the Board of Supervisors and the county sheriff. All complied.
Dumanis released the letter on KUSI’s television program Good Morning San Diego. KUSI was one of a few news outlets that had refused to join the the legal quest for the letter, claiming it “was protected speech and part of a federal investigation.”
Dumanis told KUSI she believed she had no obligation to release the letter, and only did it in “her personal capacity,” not as District Attorney.
“Our legal beagles in the office looked at it, I’ve looked at it, and I believe it’s not a public record,” Dumanis said. Dumanis said she wrote the letter at the request of Ernesto Encinas, a former San Diego police detective Dumanis said she’s known for more than 20 years. Encinas was indicted and has pleaded guilty in the pending federal case.
The recommendation was written on letterhead with Dumanis’ name, title and a seal, but in the interview, she said it wasn’t her official letterhead. In the letter, she calls Azano, Jr. “an exceptional student and individual,” but doesn’t mention any personal relationship she had with him or his father.
In the morning interview, Dumanis said she didn’t know Azano, Jr. personally and had “somebody prepare the letter” for her. In these situations “when someone I know that is vouching for a person, asks me to write a letter, I make it clear by not saying, you know, it’s somebody I know.”
In a statement released with the letter, Dumanis said, “Speculation over this letter has been without merit. Even though this is not a public record, but a personal letter, I have decided to release this letter in this case only. It is my hope that by doing so, we can all focus on holding the individuals charged with crimes responsible for their actions.”
Azano was indicted in January on charges of using straw donors to funnel more than $500,000 into San Diego politics with the help of Encinas, a Washington, D.C.-based “campaign guru” and a San Diego lobbyist. Azano allegedly gave $100,000 through a company he controlled to the PAC “San Diegans for Bonnie Dumanis for Mayor 2012, Sponsored by Airsam N492RM, LLC.”
Congressman Juan Vargas and former Mayor Bob Filner also allegedly received contributions from Azano. It is illegal for a non-U.S. resident to give to a political campaign.
In addition to inewsource, the following media organizations joined the legal challenge of Dumanis’ refusal to release the letter: City News Service, KFMB News 8, KNSD/NBC 7, KPBS, KSWB/Fox 5, the San Diego Daily Transcript, San Diego Press Club, Society of Professional Journalists San Diego, U-T San Diego, and Voice of San Diego.
Edited by inewsource Executive Director and Editor Lorie Hearn. Emily Burns contributed to this report.