Six veteran San Diego attorneys tell NBC 7 that District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ continued refusal to answer questions about her relationship with an indicted Mexican multi-millionaire indicates that Dumanis has been questioned by the FBI and may have already testified before a federal grand jury.
Dumanis, who was reelected to a fourth term on Tuesday, has declined to explain why she wrote a letter of recommendation to a local college on behalf of Edward Susumo Azano, whose father, Jose Susumo Azano Matsura, is accused of illegally funneling more than $500,000 into local political campaigns, including nearly $200,000 into independent efforts that aided Dumanis’ failed 2012 mayoral bid.
Pressed by reporters Tuesday night for a response to allegations by her main opponent, Bob Brewer, about why she recommended Edward Susumo Azano for admission to the University of San Diego, Dumanis responded, “I don’t comment on ongoing criminal proceedings. This is an ongoing criminal proceeding.”
Reporters continued to push Dumanis for answers and for more information about her relationship with Jose Azano. She declined to answer those questions.
But the attorneys interviewed by NBC 7, who include two former federal prosecutors, all said Dumanis is wise to keep quiet about all aspects of the Azano investigation.
They said any witness or potential witness in a criminal investigation would be asked by FBI agents and federal prosecutors not to taint their inquiry by publicly discussing the case.
They also noted that if Dumanis has testified before a Grand Jury on the Azano case, she would have been legally admonished not to talk about her testimony.
The lawyers, four of whom asked that their names not be used in this story, said that based on their experience, they are also sure that Dumanis has either hired an attorney to advise her in this process or consulted with a trusted colleague from outside the DA’s office.
The lawyers all said any attorney who counseled Dumanis would remind her of the pitfalls of making public statements about her relationship with Azano, because doing so creates a public record that can be contradicted by later statements.
That’s exactly what happened to Dumanis last week, when the existence of the recommendation letter written by Dumanis on District Attorney’s letterhead for Azano’s son was revealed during a federal court hearing.
That letter was reportedly addressed to the President of the University of San Diego, Mary Lyons.
Dumanis’s election opponent, Bob Brewer, said the existence of the letter appears to contradict Dumanis’s public statements in January when she downplayed the extent of her relationship with the accused Mexican multi-millionaire and his family. At that time, Dumanis said she recalled little about meeting him at his luxury home in Coronado and had only a vague recollection of their discussion.
Veteran defense attorney Kerry Armstrong said Dumanis was in a very uncomfortable position on election night when she fielded questions from reporters. “And all these people are saying, 'Look' -- especially when the letter came out, a few days ago -- 'Look, you need to tell us what you know and when you knew it.' Things like that. But she can't because she's still a witness in this case. So she's between a rock and a hard spot there."
Defense attorney Gretchen von Helms said the FBI is obviously investigating how Azano funneled those allegedly illegal contributions to independent expenditure groups working on behalf of Dumanis’s 2012 mayoral bid and to other candidates.
“And the ‘somehow’ part of it is, how did he get that money over to her? And did she know that he was giving her a certain amount of money? So she could definitely be a witness in this case,” Von Helms said.
Von Helms supported Brewer in the DA’s race, but said Dumanis is an “honest, ethical prosecutor” who probably wants to give the public more information about her relationship with Azano.
“And I’m sure she’ll do the right thing,” Von Helms said of the DA. “As much as she can. She just might not be able to do much at this point because there’s an ongoing investigation. So we have to kind of give her the benefit of the doubt, allow the investigation to run its course and then allow her to have her say.”