A San Diego-based lobbyist accused of conspiring to finance political campaigns using money from an illegal foreign source made his first appearance in federal court Friday.
Marco Polo Cortes, 44, is facing a charge of conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States. He was arrested by FBI agents on Tuesday in San Diego’s Little Italy community.
According to a complaint filed by the FBI and unsealed by a U.S. magistrate judge Tuesday, Cortes allegedly conspired with Ravneet Singh, CEO of electionmall.com, and former San Diego Police Department Detective Ernesto Encinas to funnel more than $500,000 into San Diego political races, mostly in 2012 and 2013.
Cortes, Singh and Encinas were all named in the complaint. The document also listed the source of the illegal foreign money as a person referred to as “The Foreign National.”
According to the complaint, Cortes has lobbied SDPD officials, city council members and mayoral staff. It states that in 2012, Cortes and a co-conspirator approached a representative of a candidate running for federal elective office. Despite strict rules on foreign contributions, Cortes and a co-conspirator allegedly helped The Foreign National contribute in a so-called "Straw Donor’s" name.
The complaint says Cortes, Singh and other co-conspirators facilitated illegal contributions to a candidate running for the office of San Diego mayor during the 2012 general election cycle.
In September 2013, Cortes allegedly met with a confidential informant to discuss possibly arranging additional campaign contributions from The Foreign National to a candidate running in San Diego’s 2013 special mayoral election.
If convicted of the fraud, Cortes faces a maximum of five years in prison, plus three years of supervised release and a $250,000 fine. Singh and Encinas have also been arrested and charged in the scandal.
“We will not tolerate fraud in our elections at any level,” said acting U.S. Attorney Cindy M. Cipriani in a statement released Wednesday. “We will root out the influence of foreign money in our electoral processes and on our elected leaders.
As Cortes appeared in federal court Wednesday, an FBI agent collected evidence from a Coronado home owned by a wealthy Mexican national.
The "Foreign National" named in the complaint is described as a Mexican citizen with residences in California. Encinas oversaw security for the suspect, prosecutors said.
An NBC 7 News photojournalist spotted the FBI official removing evidence from the Coronado home of tycoon Jose Susumo Azano Matsura.
The official would not confirm he was there in connection to the ongoing campaign finance case.
In court documents, federal prosecutors accuse Singh, who was arraigned Tuesday, of using a so-called Straw Donor to take the funds from The Foreign National's illegal campaign contributions to try to influence local elections.
The Straw Donor is described as the owner of a California company who is a friend to The Foreign National.
The politicians who received the illegal campaign contributions are identified only by number in the federal complaint.
“Candidate 1” was a candidate for mayor in the 2012 election. “Candidate 2” was described as running for federal elective office in 2012. “Candidate 3” was running for San Diego mayor in 2012. “Candidate 4” ran for the office of mayor after the resignation of former mayor Bob Filner in August 2013.
In May 2012, The Foreign National and Encinas created an independent expenditure committee with $100,000.
Prosecutors claim the committee spent $86,000 on mailers and promotional materials for Candidate 1, without identifying The Foreign National as the source of the money.
The complaint also alleges that The Foreign National agreed to foot the bill for $100,000 in social media to promote Candidate 1 beginning in February 2012.
The Straw Donor deposited a $380,000 check from The Foreign National into a bank account connected to one of his businesses in October 2012, prosecutors allege. From that account, a $30,000 check was written to a committee supporting Candidate 2, according to the complaint.
Singh's company received $190,000 that same month to promote Candidate 3's campaign on social media, federal prosecutors claim. That same month, The Straw Donor wrote a $120,000 check to a committee supporting the same candidate.
On Wednesday, four San Diego politicians announced they are returning campaign contributions. They are District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, Interim Mayor Todd Gloria, Congressman Juan Vargas and Congressional candidate Carl DeMaio.
Dumanis, who ran for mayor in 2012, initially issued a statement that said her campaign "followed the law and did not coordinate with this independent committee.”
Gloria's office confirmed to NBC 7 that Gloria received a campaign contribution from Encinas in March 2012.
Current mayoral candidate and City Councilmember David Alvarez said this to NBC 7: "The campaign has not accepted any contributions from and has had no involvement with Election Mall Inc., Ravneet Singh or Ernesto Encinas.”
A spokesperson for mayoral candidate and City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer says he “has no involvement in this issue.”
The campaign finance case remains under investigation. The agencies leading the investigation include the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the San Diego Police Department.