San Diego, California Campaigns and Elections
On May 16, 2019, the Ninth Circuit panel reversed the social media “campaign guru” Ravneet (Ravi) Singh’s convictions on count 37 for falsification of campaign records, vacated the sentences, and remanded for resentencing (United States v. Mastura & Singh).
In January 2014, Ravneet Singh, campaign service professional and a turban-wearing Sikh born in American, was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and arraigned in San Diego on charges of conspiracy and falsification of campaign records during the 2012 San Diego election cycle where his company provided campaign contributions (Miller, 2016).Singh was the founder and owner of Washington, D.C.-based ElectionMall Technologies, the company that was offering the digital campaign services, the dot com company was forced to shut down operations due to legal cost in 2016. The case against the company was eventually dropped before the trial in 2016, however the government charged Ravneet Singh with seven (7) felonies. The KBPS reported that Singh, together with Cortes (San Diego Lobbyist) and Encinas (San Diego Police Veteran), were accused of trying to hide the source of huge donations made to local campaigns, including 2012 mayoral campaigns for Bonnie Dumanis, a current district attorney (DA) and Bob Filner, a retired Democratic US Congressman (City News Service, 2014). In 2016, Singh was convicted under the Sarbanes-Oxley provision for false campaign finance reports filed as a result of the defendant’s coverup of the prohibited contributions.
Ravneet Singh who styled himself as a campaign guru had worked on thousands of non-partisan campaigns and elections, providing his nonpartisan software with an exclusive partnership with Microsoft called Campaign Cloud helping world leaders around the globe with Facebook, Twitter and web based solutions (C-SPAN, 2010). Ravneet Singh, a former USA military cadet, a former public servant in Illinois government and republican political candidate, had no prior convictions before the United States v Singh case. He appealed the verdict in the United States Court of Appeals for The Ninth Circuit on all counts, including conspiracy and falsification of campaign finance reports. According to a Wiley Newsletter report, the appellant raised multiple arguments for the reversal of the ruling stating that prosecutors failed to establish the elements of the Sarbanes-Oxley provision (Wang, 2019). The district court’s jury instruction stated:
… that the evidence must show beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted with the knowledge and intention of helping [Azano] to commit the crime of making donations and contributions by a foreign national aggregating at least $25,000 in calendar year 2012, in violation of Title 2, United States Code, Sections 441e(a)(1)(A) and 437g(d)(1)(A) (United States v. Mastura & Singh).
During the proceedings, the appellant referred to prior cases, one being Ratzlaf v. United States, that requires the government to prove that defendant harbored the specific intent to evade § 30121, not merely the intent to commit unlawful conduct. In the case, Ratzlaf maintained on appeal that he could not be convicted of “willfully violating” the anti-structuring law exclusively on the basis of his knowledge that a financial institution is required to report currency transactions exceeding $10,000 and his intention to avoid such reporting. The ruling in the Court of Appeal held that to convict Ratzlaf of the crime, the jury required to find that the structuring he engaged in was unlawful. Since the jury was not properly instructed, the conviction was reversed (Ratzlaf v. United States). Proof was required for the government to gain a conviction for “willful” conduct, showing that he was well aware of the illegality in which he engaged in. Ratzlaf was charged with structuring transactions to evade the bank’s obligation to report cash transactions over $10,000. He had tried to pay a $160,000 casino debt and was informed by the casino official and the bank that such a transaction had to be reported to state and federal authorities since it exceeded $10,000. He decided to purchase cashier checks from different banks, just ensuring none exceeded $10,000 (Ratzlaf v. United States).
While addressing the panel, Ravneet Singh’s legal defense team Harold Krent, former Dean at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, emphasized that the district court committed reversible error by failing to instruct the jury as to the required mental state properly. It was expected that the government provides enough proof that he harbored the specific intent to evade § 30121, not merely the intent to commit unlawful conduct. Additionally, Singh argued that the district court erred by failing to instruct the jury that “knowledge of MasturaAzano’s immigration status (that he was an Asian Mexican, not an Asian American) was a material element of the crime.” Singh, since his arrest in 2014, has always claimed he was innocent and did not intendto violate any federal or state campaign and election laws.
“He was paid a minimal amount of money by Azano to do a minimal amount of work for these two campaigns,” Michael Lipman, a partner of Duane Morris Law firm said, adding that there was neither evidence that Singh was paid $267,000 for his services nor evidence that he knew of Azano’s other donations.
The main issue for Ravneet Singh (a technology vendor), not Matura Aazno’s (an Asian Mexican political donor), was the falsification of campaign reports. Singh responded, saying that he did not personally prepare the campaign finance reports. He argued that the reports providing the hook for Sarbanes-Oxley law were made by someone else and not him, so he did not willfully violate the law. Also, his involvement or influence in the preparation of the reports could not be proven. However, the US Federal Southern District Court presided by Judge Anello, held that he was still liable, citing Section 2(b) of Sarbanes-Oxley that prohibits anyone from indirectly violating any of the law’s provisions (Wang, 2019). The Jury upheld that Singh had indirectly caused the candidates receiving the in-kind contributions to file false reports.
The reach of the Sarbanes-Oxley law has only ever been applied to federal reporting violations until United States v. Mastura & Singh case. Notably, in the only two cases addressing the matter (U.S. v. Benton and U.S. v. Rowland), the courts held that defendants could adequately be convicted for violating Sarbanes-Oxley provision with respect to federal campaign reports (Wang, 2019). Contrary, in this case, Singh violations were only in connection with local elections, not federal campaigns meaning only state and local reporting requirements were in question of being violated.
Singh went ahead to contend that the jury was wrong with the conviction in the fact that he was not legally obligated to disclose his relations with Mr. Azano, a longtime San Diego resident, and a previous political donor to both Filner and Dumanis campaigns. He argued that even if he omitted the information that Azano was paying him for the social media services offered to the campaigns, he had no obligation to disclose that information. He added that he had no part in the preparation of campaign disclosure forms. As such, his connection to any actions taken was particularly tenuous. He also highlighted that his argument had merit based on the fact that in most of the cases where courts affirmed § 1519 convictions based on omissions, the defendants either prepared the record or document or were responsible for doing so personally. For all individuals convicted based on omissions, there was direct involvement and legal duty to make the reports. In Singh’s situation, there was no legal duty at a state or federal level for him to report that he was receiving any form of payments from Mr. Azano.
Is it really required of the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Singh knew that Mr. Azano was not a United States citizen nor a legal permanent resident? According to Jury instructions, proof beyond a reasonable doubt, refer to facts and circumstances that would lead a juror to be firmly convinced that the defendant is guilty (Signorelli, 2009). Based on the situation, there was no reasonable proof that Ravneet Singh was aware of Mr. Azano’s current “citizenship” status to validate whether he was a part-time Coronado resident of San Diego, a permanent California resident, or an American citizen. During the appeal proceedings, Singh mentioned that “the district court’s failure to include the material element that he knew Mr. Azano lacked immigration status constitutes reversible error” (United States v. Singh). There was no proof to ascertain that he knew Mr. Azanos’ citizenship or immigration status.
The federal government faced a challenging question from the 9th Circuit panel in May 2019. This resulted from the national government’s claim that it has the authority to ban foreigners from voting and donating in state and local elections. According to the Politico news, the question on the federal government’s control of state and local elections came not from the appellants but Judge Paul Watford. He requested U.S Attorney Helen Hong to respond to the constitutional question (Gerstein, 2019).
In Politico’s article “Under the Radar,”Harold Krent states, “What they’ve forgotten about is federalism…It’s up to the state and local government to decide who votes, who can contribute. How ironic that we’re here in San Francisco, which has given the vote to noncitizens in school board elections. And the argument from the government is: ‘Oh yeah, we can overrule that at any time because we have total control of who can participate in governance in terms of voting, in terms of contributions.” The appellant asserted that the constitution gives States the power to run independent governments, which means the Congress cannot legislate over state and local elections. They protested the government’s claim citing “Oregon v. Mitchell, 400 U.S. 112, 124 (1970) (opinion of Black, J.).
In Mitchell, the Court found unconstitutional a provision of the Voting Rights Act that set the voting age for state and local elections at eighteen. Id. at 117–18. Similarly, in James v. Bowman, the Court struck down a federal statute criminalizing bribery in state and local elections. 190 U.S. 127, 142 (1903)” (United States v. Singh).
The Wiley Newsletter reported that “As for jurisdiction, the court agreed that violations of state and local campaign finance reporting laws, in and of themselves, do not fall within the federal government’s jurisdiction” (Wang, 2019). The response by the panel clearly affirms that the state and local governments have the power to run independent governments separate from federal government influence. The 9th Circuit, however, rejected Singh’s argument that the matter was not within the U.S jurisdiction because disclosure forms were sought in connection with the Federal Bureaus of Investigation’s (FBI) investigations of a federal crime.Even though the campaigns in question were California state/local political campaigns and not federal political campaigns which are governed by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the FBI’s investigations made it a national government case.
The Ninth Circuit conclusion was, “finding the evidence insufficient to prove that Singh willfully caused the Filner campaign to file false records, we reverse Appellants’ convictions under count thirty-seven.” This reversal, after 75 months, is a step in the right direction for Ravneet Singh’s legal team but might be to little to late as Ravneet Singh has remained on US Federal Probation and Pre-Trial services for nearly five years.
City News Service. (2014, February 19). Men accused of funneling foreign funds to San Diego campaigns plead not guilty. KPBS Public Media. https://www.kpbs.org/news/2014/feb/19/men-accused-funneling-foreign-funds-san-diego-camp/
C-SPAN. (2010, April 19). Politics online conference: Cloud computing. C-SPAN.org. https://www.c-span.org/video/?293064-3/cloud-computing#
Duane Morris LLP. (n.d.). Duane Morris LLP Offices. Welcome to Duane Morris LLP. https://www.duanemorris.com/site/offices.html
Gerstein, J. (2019, March 14). Court wrestles with law banning foreign donations. POLITICO. https://www.politico.com/blogs/under-the-radar/2019/03/14/court-wrestles-with-law-banning-foreign-donations-1222405
Miller, S. J. (2016, September 9). ‘Campaign guru’ convicted on all federal charges, faces jail time.’Campaign Insider | Campaigns & Elections. https://www.campaignsandelections.com/campaign-insider/campaign-guru-convicted-on-all-federal-charges-faces-jail-time
Ratzlaf v. United States (92-1196), 510 U.S. 135 (1994).
Signorelli, W. P. (2017). Criminal law, procedure, and evidence. CRC Press.
United States v. Mastura & Singh, (Nos. 17-50337 & 17-50387) (9th Cir. May 16, 2019)–
United States v. Ravneet Singh, 17-50337 (9th Cir. May 16, 2019)
Wang, E. (2019, July). Ninth Circuit ruling continues trend of adding Sarbanes-Oxley charges to campaign finance violations. Wiley. https://www.wiley.law/newsletter-Ninth-Circuit-Ruling-Extends-Trend-of-Adding-Sarbanes-Oxley-Charges-to-Campaign-Finance-Violations