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Suit Charging Absentee Ballot Violations Goes to Trial Friday : Inglewood Mayor Subpoenaed in Vote Dispute

September 10, 1987|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | Times Staff Writer

Lawyers for an Inglewood City Council candidate suing to oust Councilman Ervin (Tony) Thomas have subpoenaed Mayor Edward Vincent and his two daughters as part of an effort to prove that absentee votes for Thomas were obtained illegally.

Mark Borenstein, attorney for plaintiff Garland Hardeman, said in an interview that there is strong evidence that election code violations occurred with at least 30 absentee votes cast in the June runoff election. He said he has compiled a list of more than 100 absentee ballots that he may challenge in the trial of the lawsuit, which begins Friday.

Led Votes Cast in Person

Thomas and Vincent have said there was nothing improper about their effort to get out absentee votes and have chided Hardeman for not accepting defeat. Thomas' lawyer and City Atty. Howard Rosten said the election challenge has little chance of succeeding.

The court proceeding, which seeks to annul Thomas' victory and award Hardeman the District 4 council seat, will take the form of a mini-trial on each contested vote. Election laws stipulate that the judge should automatically declare Hardeman the winner if enough votes are disqualified to change the result, Borenstein said.

Hardeman, a Los Angeles police officer, led Thomas 544 to 233 in votes cast at the polls, but Thomas went ahead on the strength of 409 absentee votes collected in a concerted drive by the forces of Vincent, Thomas' chief political and financial backer. A recount raised Thomas' final winning margin to 16 votes.

Hardeman's suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in July, charges that Thomas and his allies intimidated and coerced voters into casting absentee ballots for him, that absentee ballots were illegally delivered by third parties and that signatures on absentee ballots do not match signatures on voter registration rolls.

"We have a good shot at showing that the votes of 17 people who voted for Thomas should not have been counted," said Borenstein, who took on the case recently on an unpaid basis.

He has been rushing to prepare his case because election code laws require a speedy trial. Borenstein said success depends on "how cooperative the people of Inglewood are" in responding to subpoenas on short notice.

"We'll subpoena a large number of people. If they come and testify, we'll have a good chance."

Judge Leon Savitch denied Borenstein's request this week that the trial be held in Inglewood to make it easier for witnesses and residents to attend the proceedings.

Borenstein said he plans to challenge more than 20 ballots on the assertion that Thomas, Vincent or other Thomas backers went to people's homes and punched ballots for them or pressured them into voting for Thomas. He also said he will charge that 14 ballots were delivered to the polls or the city clerk by someone other than the absentee voter. A handwriting expert may testify as to whether absentee ballots were signed by the voters who applied for them, Borenstein said.

Borenstein has also interviewed City Clerk Hermanita Harris about procedures during the runoff election and plans to subpoena her. But the city clerk has not yet been named in the suit, despite efforts of both Borenstein and Rosten to include her office and the City of Inglewood as co-defendants because the suit involves a city election.

Such Challenges Rare

Robert Stroud, Thomas' attorney, said he rejected requests to name the city clerk and the city as defendants because he does not want to make the case more complicated.

"This appears to be a matter of a sore loser trying to find something to save himself with," Stroud added. "I don't see any improprieties. Tony's team went out and made sure people voted. They made sure they mailed their votes in, helped them mail them in. That's legal. They (Hardeman's lawyers) are also charging intimidation and coercion. I don't think in these days and times anyone can be intimidated."

Lawyers on both sides said such election challenges are rare and hard to prove. Borenstein said a case in San Joaquin County last year resulted in annulment of an election on the grounds of fraud in the collection of absentee ballots.

At pretrial hearings in recent weeks, Rosten has maintained that Hardeman's charges are unclear, lack supporting evidence and, in the case of allegations that third parties mailed absentee votes, are not legal grounds for a judge to invalidate votes or the election.

"If the case does not get more substantive than it has been so far, I can't believe that a judge would allow it to go more than a day or two," said Rosten, who has thus far represented the city as an "interested party."

"Our status is to support anything that moves the case forward. We want to finish it. We can't allow the disappointment of a candidate to control how our government is run. This is disruptive in the minds of the public."

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