A Los Angeles Superior Court judge's decision Friday could finally end the four-month fight over Inglewood's 4th District City Council seat.
Or it could start a new and equally bitter fight.
Three weeks ago, (Judge Leon Savitch annulled Councilman Ervin (Tony) Thomas' victory in the June 16 runoff election, finding that "more than 16 votes were illegally cast" for Thomas in his victory over Garland Hardeman. At the time, Savitch said he would order a new election when he makes a formal ruling in the case.
Savitch is scheduled to hear arguements in the case Friday, after which he is expected to issue a written decision. Hardeman's attorney, Mark Borenstein, has asked that Hardeman be declared the winner of the election because Savitch has already ruled that more than 16 votes for Thomas were illegal, thereby wiping out Thomas's margin of victory.
Hardeman had 70% of the vote in ballots cast at the polls. However, absentee voters favored Thomas 395 to 64 and Thomas was declared the winner, 626 to 610. Hardeman then challenged the election in court; the city and the city clerk were subsequently named as defendants in the lawsuit against Thomas.
Savitch has not said how many ballots he found to be illegal, but there was testimony about numerous irregularities. Witnesses gave accounts of Thomas, Mayor Edward Vincent and other Thomas campaign workers pressuring them to cast absentee ballots, telling them to sign ballots for family members and taking unsealed ballots from their homes.
Hardeman's lawyers also presented evidence of forged ballot signatures and ballots being cast by non-residents using the addresses of Thomas' campaign headquarters, boarded-up buildings and Thomas' home.
Thomas and Vincent have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
Borenstein sees as a favorable sign Savitch's willingness to hear arguments about whether he should declare a winner. Hardeman said this week that he is ready for a new campaign but hopes that the judge will award him the council seat.
City Atty. Howard Rosten said he will argue against the judge declaring a winner based on ballot irregularities. He said there is insufficient proof that illegal votes were cast for Thomas rather than for Hardeman. Rosten is representing the city and the city clerk in the suit.
Although Rosten said that he disagrees with the judge's decision to annul the election, he said "we do not entertain serious thoughts that he'll change it. Taking the judge's point of view, his ruling indicates that he believes there were more than 16 irregular votes that might have been cast for Thomas." Rosten said he thought the judge should order a new election in accordance with his oral ruling.
Hardeman's suit challenged 63 ballots and both sides are eager to hear how many of them Savitch considers illegal. Savitch's ruling may also indicate whether he believes that Vincent, Thomas or their campaign workers violated the Election Code.
Refused to Step Down
Thomas has rejected demands by Hardeman that he step down from the council immediately and said he would run again if a new election is held. Vincent has agreed with Rosten that the judge's Sept. 25 oral ruling was not final and that Thomas can remain on the council.
Thomas has 10 days after the judge's upcoming decision to appeal and could remain on the council during the appellate process. Rosten said whether the city appeals will depend on the particulars of Savitch's ruling and the wishes of the council. Robert Stroud, Thomas' attorney, said he was "quite sure" Thomas will appeal.
The contested election pitting an angry Hardeman against Inglewood's politically powerful mayor and his candidate for the City Council has not gone unnoticed by local political leaders.
Sen. Diane Watson (D-Los Angeles) came out strongly in support of Hardeman in a interview last week. She said Thomas should have vacated the seat when the election was annulled.
"We need to do away with fraudulent practices once and for all in the name of good government," Watson said. "The interests of the people are important, not the interests of a few leaders."
Watson said she found testimony about Vincent and Thomas' actions during the campaign to be "very troubling" and noted that the Los Angeles County district attorney's office is investigating the case.
The district attorney's office confirmed that an investigation is still under way but would not comment further.
Watson said she would back Hardeman if a new election is necessary and called his fight to overturn the Thomas victory "wonderful. It shows that the system does work. I hope he wins."
Assemblyman Curtis Tucker (D-Inglewood), one of the city's most influential politicians, said revelations that surfaced during the trial were "embarrassing."
Tucker, who had backed Thomas' candidacy, said it would be appropriate for Thomas to run again only if he is not personally implicated in wrongdoing.
Councilman Anthony Scardenzan and Councilwoman Ann Wilk have said they will continue their support of Hardeman in a new election. Councilman Danny Tabor supported Hardeman in June but has not said whether he will back a candidate in a new election.