A retired police detective on Tuesday became the first person to plead guilty in a campaign finance scandal alleging that a Mexican businessman illegally donated more than $500,000 to support San Diego politicians.
Ernesto Encinas, 58, pleaded guilty to federal counts of conspiracy to commit crimes against the United States and filing a false tax return. He faces up to eight years in prison when he is sentenced June 9.
Encinas, who retired in 2009 from the San Diego Police Department after 31 years with the same employer, is a central figure in the scandal for his role as head of the security detail for Mexican businessman Jose Susumo Azano, the alleged source of the illegal contributions. Encinas' plea agreement includes a nine-page section in which he vouches for the prosecution's main allegations against Azano and admits a key role in concealing the donations.
Azano and two others -- Washington political consultant Ravneet Singh and San Diego lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes -- have pleaded not guilty to a scheme in which prosecutors say Azano concealed donations to independent committees targeting four candidates for mayor and Congress in 2012 and 2013. Prosecutors have not named the candidates.
It is against federal law for a foreign national to donate to a federal, state or local campaign.
Encinas' attorney Jeremy Warren declined to say if his client would cooperate with prosecutors against the other defendants. He said he was confident that his client would be spared prison time.
“Obviously this is not a fun day for him but he is taking responsibility for what he did wrong,” Warren told reporters.
Azano heads Grupo Azano SA, a conglomerate of construction and security companies based in Guadalajara, Mexico, and lives in Coronado. He specializes in eavesdropping equipment and, according to prosecutors, travels to Mexico, Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and other countries for work.
Timothy Perry, an assistant U.S. attorney, has said Azano wanted to develop property in San Diego and turn its downtown waterfront into “Miami West.”
Encinas allegedly told a confidential informant last year that he wanted to replace then-Police Chief William Lansdowne with someone of his choosing in exchange for funneling Azano's money to an unnamed mayoral candidate in a special election to replace Bob Filner, who resigned amid allegations that he sexually harassed women. Warren told reporters that Encinas' believed that he was acting in the officers' best interests and that Lansdowne was taking the department “in the wrong direction.”
Lansdowne stepped down earlier this month after San Diego's new mayor, Kevin Faulconer, said significant changes were ahead after a spate of officer misconduct allegations.