It was billed as the U.S.-Mexico Border Mayors Association’s third annual “Binational Summit,” an “opportunity for mayors from across the border to…collaborate on topics that affect border communities of Mexico and the United States, and consolidate the friendship ties and mutual understanding among our communities and governments.” As it turned out, much of the cost of the meeting was quietly paid for by a big company with lots of business along the border.
The August 24 event, held at downtown’s bayfront Manchester Grand Hyatt, boasted an array of border politicos, including San Diego lame-duck mayor Jerry Sanders; El Paso mayor John Cook; Tijuana mayor Carlos Bustamante; Baja California secretary of tourism Juan Tintos Funcke; and Alan Bersin, the controversial former San Diego schools chief who is now assistant secretary of international affairs and chief diplomatic officer in the Obama administration’s Homeland Security Department.
Despite its purportedly broad agenda, the one-day, closed-door conference focused heavily on economic development, especially ways to expedite customs processing and expand border crossings. “There simply isn’t going to be the money to expand the border as quickly as we need it expanded,” Sanders fretted to reporters afterward.
Bersin, who has been an investor in past border-related development projects, talked up a privatization agenda “to harness the power of the market to build even more infrastructure,” according to a U-T San Diego account. Bustamante added that he, along with Sanders and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, would soon head to Washington, D.C., to lobby for a second and third phase of taxpayer-funded expansion for the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
The August meeting was ostensibly sponsored by the City of San Diego through Sanders’s office. But documents the City provided, following a public records request, show that the event was in large part financed by Duty Free Americas. The company, the largest duty-free operator in North America, is run by Miami-based mega-millionaire Simon Falic, who acquired the operation with his brothers in 2001. Falic is also a principal in and president of UETA, Inc., a Panamanian wholesale distributor of luxury goods. A major pro-Israel backer, Falic has long been a big donor of campaign funds to the Democratic Party and its candidates, including Barack Obama and San Diego congressman Bob Filner, now running for mayor. Falic also gives heavily to Republicans.
An invoice for the conference issued by the Hyatt dated August 24 listed total costs, including parking, coffee breaks, and a “plated luncheon” for 170 attendees, as $17,215. In addition, the mayor’s office was billed $4767 by PSAV Presentation Services for various audio-video and staging costs associated with the event. Trans Lang, Inc., of San Diego submitted a $2100 bill for translation services, providing Sanders with a “municipal government discount” of $110.
According to a series of emails between Denice Garcia, the mayor’s director of protocol and binational affairs, and Louis R. Escareño, an attorney for Duty Free Americas, the company agreed to pick up $12,000 of the Hyatt’s bill. “The city will be responsible for the difference,” Garcia emailed Escareño on August 9.
In a missive a few hours later, Escareño told Garcia, “If they don’t mind, we will just pay the final bill but they won’t receive a check till a couple of weeks after the event. I was trying to prepay but this [invoice] doesn’t give accounting at SFA much to work with. I hope you and the Hyatt understand.”
Shortly afterward, Escareño emailed Garcia again. “Ok. We are good to go,” he wrote. “I will make sure DFA’s $12,000 gets paid ASAP. If they hand me or email a bill that day, I will get approval and the bill will be paid [the] following week. Let me know about dinner and drinks.”
Another Escareño email to Garcia listed “potential invitees” for the closed event as Duty Free president Simon Falic; Duty Free regional manager Jack Cruthirds; and George Ramon, a Duty Free consultant; as well as Escareño himself. “I will be in SD most of next week,” Escareño wrote. “Maybe we can meet up for drinks and/or dinner. I need to coordinate the gift bags.” In a telephone interview this week, Escareño said Falic did not attend the event, though other Duty Free employees did. He added that Garcia had picked up her own dinner and drink tab.