Jan. 29 2014 09:47 AM

The problem is, San Diego's current scandal is only a scandal because of a technicality


If you pay close attention to local news, you know all about Susumo Azano, the Mexican businessman with the getaway home in Coronado who's alleged to have illegally funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaigns of two 2012 candidates for mayor of San Diego and one local candidate for Congress. People who are not U.S. citizens or greencard holders aren't allowed to donate to campaigns in this country.

Azano hasn't been arrested, but three other players have: Lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes, private-security contractor and former San Diego Police Detective Ernesto Encinas and election-social-media purveyor Ravneet Singh allegedly helped Azano route his money into the elections and hide its true origins. Voice of San Diego has an excellent explainer on how federal authorities believe the scheme went down.

The case is intriguing on a micro level, certainly: To what lengths was a group of people willing to go in order to curry favor with possible office holders? What did they want? What did the candidates themselves know, and when did they know it? Who else was involved? Local reporters are busy peeling back that onion. But let's not forget to look at the case in a broader context.

The most a person can legally donate directly to a mayoral candidate or a committee controlled by a candidate in San Diego during one election cycle is $1,000. The limit for a congressional campaign is $2,600. But people can get around that by creating or contributing to so-called independent-expenditure committees, also known as super PACs, which work to get a specific candidate elected by buying TV advertising or sending out mailers, but must do so independently of the candidate's official campaign. There's no law against someone telling a candidate how much money he or she donated to a super PAC, which means a winning candidate can know exactly how important a donor was to her or his success.

As CityBeat reported nearly two years ago, Azano created a super PAC to benefit District Attorney and candidate for mayor Bonnie Dumanis and, through a shell company, gave it $100,000. Azano also sent $30,000 through the Democratic Party to benefit a congressional candidate believed to be now-U.S. Rep. Juan Vargas. He also allegedly spent more than $400,000 to help get Bob Filner elected mayor, and we know, via stories in Voice of San Diego and U-T San Diego, that Azano met with both Dumanis and Filner. He also tried to invest in a candidate, likely Nathan Fletcher, in the 2013 special election. We're learning things about what Azano, Encinas and Cortes were trying to get for Azano's money—the ouster of Police Chief Bill Lansdowne and help with permits and alcohol licenses for Downtown nightclubs.

So, we have a wealthy businessman, Azano, spending massive amounts of money to influence elections and meeting privately with candidates to discuss issues that are important to him. We also know that Azano's associates met with Filner after he was elected. And we have Dumanis failing to investigate Azano, a generous supporter, even after CityBeat raised questions about his super PAC. And guess what: The only legal problem in all of this is that Azano happens not to be a U.S. citizen or green-card holder. If he were American, no one would be talking about this, because no one would be charged with a crime, because it would all be legal.

It shouldn't be. The Azano case is a symptom of a broken system. A wealthy man who wants to grease the wheels of government so that he can become even wealthier shouldn't be able to exert such a disproportionate level of influence on a local election— or any election.

The problem is that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that regulating super PACS is unconstitutional, because, in the court's view, money equals speech. That's why we need to change the U.S. Constitution to give Congress, the states and local governments the power to enact meaningful campaign-finance regulation. If money equals speech, then those with more money get a louder microphone, and that's not fair.

Plenty of people say that you'll never get big money out of politics and that the only thing we can reasonably do is require full public disclosure— in easily searchable and sortable online form—of who's giving to whom. They may ultimately be right, but we should never stop trying.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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