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LOS ANGELES – The consultant accused of helping a wealthy Mexican businessman funnel money to support candidates running for local and federal office in San Diego was convicted on all charges by a jury in federal court Friday.
Ravneet “Ravi” Singh, a self-proclaimed “campaign guru,” was arrested by the FBI in January 2014 and arraigned in San Diego on charges that he conspired to finance campaigns using money from José Susumo Azano Matsura, a wealthy businessman and Mexican citizen, and falsified records of the spending. (It is illegal for foreign nationals without legal residency in America to donate to U.S. candidates).
Singh pleaded not guilty and his trial began July 26.
After five and a half days of deliberation, a jury in San Diego on Friday returned the guilty verdict on Singh’s four counts of conspiracy, aiding and abetting campaign donations by a foreign national and two counts of obstruction of justice relating to failing to report those contributions. The charges stemmed from Singh’s work on the 2012 mayoral campaigns of former Rep. Bob Filner (D) and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis (R).
Prosecutors made the case that Singh had been paid $290,000 of the some $500,000 Azano funneled to the candidates as well as the San Diego County Democratic Party and the DCCC through car dealer Marc Chase and Ernie Encinas, a former San Diego police detective. Both men, who used straw donors to distribute the funds, pleaded guilty in 2014 trials. Chase testified at Singh’s trial.
According to the feds, Azano was trying to get a friendly politician into the mayor’s office so he could build a Miami-style development on the waterfront in San Diego.
Singh faced a trial together with Azano, Azano’s son, Edward Susumo Azano Hester, and San Diego lobbyist Marco Polo Cortes. All defendants were convicted on at least some of the charges except for Cortes, who was acquitted on four counts related to falsifying records. The jury failed to reach a verdict on the rest of the charges against him, according to a release.
The case has riveted the San Diego consulting community and, despite going largely unnoticed by Beltway-based firms, has broader repercussions for the industry nationally. Singh now faces possible jail time, a fine or both at his Dec. 12 sentencing. The outcome of that sentencing could signal how aggressively prosecutors and the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section will pursue future criminal cases against consultants and campaign staffers.
Singh’s company, ElectionMall was initially named as a defendant in this case. But it was severed from the proceedings and now faces its own trial. It’s unclear how that will proceed in the wake of Singh’s conviction. A lawyer for ElectionMall, where Singh remains CEO, declined to comment.
Singh’s attorney, Michael Lippman, told C&E that he plans to appeal unless the judge overturns the jury’s verdict.
“We respect the jury system and the jury rendered its verdict,” Lippman said. “We’re going to appeal, if necessary. We think there’s a basis for things working out for us.”
The conviction marks a downfall for the 44-year-old Singh. His LinkedIn page notes: “Singh has worked over 21 countries and helped over 9 heads of state. He has helped corporate executives, celebrities and organizations understand the full potential and importance of digital marketing and social media in today's world.”
On the conspiracy count alone, Singh faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison, three years of supervised release, $250,000 fine and a $100 special assessment, according to the Justice Department.
Now, Jason Cabel Roe, a Republican consultant who has worked extensively in San Diego elections, said Singh’s trial should serve as a “wake-up call” to the industry.
“I think it’s a combination of greed and hubris,” he said. “The hubris part of it is that often people who violate the law in a small way and don’t get caught tend to violate the law in larger ways if there’s money on the table.”
Singh was a known commodity in the consulting world. In fact, Roe said he met Singh at an IAPC event several years ago in Panama, and was warned by his fellow consultants not to do business with him. Nancy Todd, president of the IAPC, said Singh “wasn't active” in the organization and just showed up at a “couple” events.
Still, professionals working on the Filner and Dumanis campaigns should have known something wasn’t right about Singh’s work, according to Roe. For instance, Ed Clancy, Filner’s campaign manager, testified during the trial that he’d asked Singh about why he wasn’t receiving invoices for his services. “He said, “Don’t worry. It’s taken care of,’” Clancy said Singh told him.
Clancy said he was disturbed by the comment but didn’t inquire further. Something he called “not my finest hour.”
Roe, who consulted on San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s 2013 campaign, said that was a “shocking statement.”
“I think it speaks to inexperience,” he said. “That has to be brought to the attention of the candidate. If staff choose not to notify the candidate, they put the candidate in legal jeopardy.”
Singh was known as a salesman who pushed the limits of accuracy when extolling his record. In fact, he pitched himself abroad as one of the consultants responsible for digital on President Obama’s 2008 campaign. That helped him land work on several campaigns including for Fine Gael in Ireland, a Brazilian presidential candidate, and Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos, according to Politico. When asked why he claimed he worked for Obama, Singh apologized to Politico in April 2011 for the “misperception.”
Despite that kind of press, his firm continued to get work domestically -- even after it was embroiled in the 2012 San Diego campaign. The Center For Public Integrity reported that ElectionMall pulled in $1.6 million from federal campaigns between 2010 and 2014 working for clients including the Republican Party of California, John Boehner, Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), former Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Ill.), and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
Roe said there’s so much money flowing into modern campaigns that higher ethical standards are needed – albeit enforcing them is another matter.
“I think everybody would benefit from clearer standards,” he said. “But I don’t know how they’re enforceable.”