This morning, KUSI aired a live interview with District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, during which she discussed a controversial letter of recommendation that she wrote for the son of Susumo Azano, who’s been charged by federal authorities with making illegal contributions to Dumanis’ campaign for mayor of San Diego. Azano’s son was seeking admission to the University of San Diego.
Before the interview, Dumanis provided the letter exclusively to KUSI. That’s hilarious, because KUSI had declined to join in a threatened lawsuit against Dumanis by numerous media outfits in San Diego over her refusal to release the letter. CityBeat requested a copy of the letter under the California Public Records Act but didn’t pay to be included in the lawsuit. In an email to many journalists and lawyer Guylyn Cummings, a producer from another local station forwarded a message from KUSI news director Steve Cohen, saying he agreed with Dumanis’ claim that the letter is not a public record and doesn’t have to be released upon request.
“I [sic] response from the DA was on the mark, I think the 350 is a waste of funds,” Cohen said.
KUSI has for years been a reliably hospitable place for local Republicans to get their messages out. It's pretty much been former City Councilmember Carl DeMaio’s home-away-from-home whenever he’s run for office.
KUSI morning-show anchor David Davis started the conversation by commenting on how “standard” the letter is, helpfully ushering Dumanis to her talking point that there’s nothing improper going on here. Dumanis mocked journalists for their interest in the letter. “One might say that they’re obsessed with it,” she said with a wide grin.
Dumanis went on to say that she was careful to not say in the letter that she knew Azano’s son personally—she’s never met him. For months, she’s maintained that she barely knows Azano himself—as a Mexican national, Azano is not allowed to contribute to political campaigns in the United States. Dumanis said it was a longtime acquaintance of hers, Ernie Encinas, who asked her to write the letter. Encinas, an associate of Azano’s and a former San Diego Police detective, pleaded guilty in March in the alleged scheme to launder illegal contributions from Azano through an intermediary.
Dumanis said that Encinas “vouched” for the content in the letter, which called Susumo Azano Jr. a “bright, energetic, compassionate, and genuinely well-rounded young man” and an “exceptional student and individual.”
Davis asked Dumanis if she regrets writing the letter.
“Well, what do you think,” Dumanis said, letting loose a big laugh. “Of course I do. If I had known when I wrote the letter what I know today, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to write the letter.”
Dumanis wrote the letter in September 2012, four months after CityBeat’s Dave Maass broke the news of Azano’s large contributions to a super PAC that was supporting Dumanis’ bid for mayor. In his report, Maass questioned the legality of a contribution from a Mexican businessman and was told—incorrectly, it turns out—that it was legal because Azano had a green card.
Dumanis complained that the media’s focus has been on her and this letter when it should be on the people who broke the law, including her old friend Encinas. She said that she and her “legal beagles” determined that the letter is not a public record. “But because in this case, everybody is so distracted about the letter, and it’s been going on for some time, that in this case, and this case only, I will release it in my individual capacity.”
CityBeat and other media contend that it is a public record, because it’s written on District Attorney’s office letterhead, with an official seal, signed by Dumanis as the district attorney, with her public office phone number provided for follow-up. CityBeat would argue that a public official doing a favor for a friend and signing off as an elected official is the public’s business.
Furthermore, back in 2012, Maass requested all documents related to “Susumo Azano.” That name appears in the letter of recommendation. Even if the District Attorney’s office concluded that it’s exempt from required release, Maass asserts, the document was in the DA’s possession and the law required Dumanis to acknowledge its existence and provide an explanation for why it was being withheld.
Davis ended his interview with Dumanis by lofting her a softball: “Certainly not much to scrutinize in this letter of recommendation.”
That allowed Dumanis to take another swing at the bothersome press: “Oh, I’m sure they’ll find something.”
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