Staffers at La Jolla's Symbolic Motor Cars dealership, whose owner has been linked to a federal investigation into local campaign contributions, wrote a flurry of checks to Bonnie Dumanis' 2012 mayoral campaign months before a Mexican national launched his own fund to support Dumanis and reportedly gave their boss money to make contributions on his behalf.
It is not clear whether there is a connection between Symbolic's contributions to Dumanis and Mexican expat Jose Susumo Azano Matsura, who has been accused of relying on friends and political consultants to help evade federal laws against foreigners donating to election campaigns.
Most of the Symbolic executives had never contributed to campaigns before, but attempts to ask about their donations to Dumanis were unsuccessful.
"This is not a good time to talk," said the dealership's office manager before hanging up the phone. The office manager had contributed $500 to the campaign.
Symbolic's owner Marc Chase has been identified in the media as the so-called Straw Donor, who federal prosecutors allege received at least $380,000 from Azano to donate to local political races.
Although prosecutors have not yet identified the Straw Donor by name, details in court filings this week point to Chase, who has not contradicted the news accounts that mention his name.
Chase and his brother, Bernard, have been doing business in La Jolla since the mid-1980s, specializing in Ferraris, Alfa Romeos, Lamborghinis, Rolls-Royces and other high-end makes.
Chase also has dabbled in airplane sales, through a company called Symbolic Aviation, and sold high-end timepieces under the name Symbolic Watches. He controls several other corporate entities, including La Jolla Commercial Investment Properties and South Beach Acquisitions.
Azano, in turn, is a wealthy businessman specializing in security systems, who spends his time between Coronado and Mexico City. Federal court filings suggest that in 2011 Azano developed an interest in donating to local political campaigns, but realized that as a foreign national he would be barred from doing that.
In April 2012, he launched an independent political action committee on Dumanis' behalf named after his private airplane, Airsam N429RM. He contributed $100,000 to the committee and gave an additional $100,000 to political consultants to develop a social media campaign for Dumanis.
In the meantime, Chase — who federal court filings suggest was a personal friend of Azano — had already given money to Dumanis. Just before New Year's Day 2012, Chase, his wife and nine of his employees — ranging from the office manager to sales workers — each contributed $500 to the Dumanis campaign, the maximum allowable for individual contributions, for a total donation of $5,500.
After Dumanis' campaign failed in June 2012, Azano reportedly turned toward an unnamed candidate for federal office, who has been identified in some press accounts as Rep. Juan Vargas. When the candidate's campaign told him he could not donate money unless he had a green card, Azano reportedly turned to the Straw Donor.
Federal court filings say that around September or October, Azano gave $380,000 to the Straw Donor, who deposited it into the bank account of one of his corporations and then proceeded to divide it up among other bank accounts in his control. At roughly the same time, Chase contributed $30,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which the court filings suggest was a "conduit contribution" to the candidate's campaign.
But Azano was reportedly also interested in supporting another mayoral candidate: former Mayor Bob Filner. At about the time that Azano gave his money to Chase, Chase's South Beach Acquisitions contributed $120,000 to San Diegans in Support of Bob Filner, an independent expenditure committee that was not subject to the $500 limits of a direct contribution. Federal papers say that another $30,000 to a political party committee affiliated with the mayoral campaign.
The federal filings offer no suggestion regarding why Azano and his Straw Donor were interested in targeting the campaigns.