SANTA ANA — Five Latino voters announced Wednesday they have accepted $400,000 to settle their lawsuit against Republican officials who posted uniformed guards at polling places last year, and they revealed documents that they said prove that the Republicans had intended to intimidate Latino voters.
The evidence released at a morning press conference included a deposition from Assemblyman John R. Lewis (R-Orange), who told attorneys he once joked with county Republican chairman Thomas A. Fuentes and the county GOP's executive director Greg Haskin about the possibility of driving green vans around polling places to give the impression that Immigration and Naturalization Service agents were lurking in the area. That idea was not pursued.
Attorneys for the five voters said they believe that the evidence would have clinched a victory in the case, in which Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) and the county Republican Party were accused of conspiring to violate voting rights in Pringle's race for the 72nd Assembly District seat.
But the plaintiffs said at the press conference that they decided to settle because the money was adequate and the suit had succeeded in highlighting the issue and forcing changes, such as a new state law barring use of uniformed guards at polling places.
FOR THE RECORD - Orange County Focus COUNTYWIDE Clarification
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 9, 1990 Orange County Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Column 4 Metro Desk 3 inches; 103 words Type of Material: Column; Brief; Correction
Polling place guards--Articles on Dec. 28 and 29 erred in describing statements by Assemblyman John R. Lewis (R-Orange) in connection with a lawsuit over uniformed guards at Santa Ana polling places in 1988. In a deposition, Lewis said he had "a vague recollection" that during a pre-election meeting he attended, "someone" joked about creating the impression that immigration agents were active on Election Day. He said he did not recall any "serious discussion" about it. Lewis said in the deposition he did not remember who made the joke. County Republican Party Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes and county GOP executive director Greg Haskin were also at the meeting, Lewis recalled. His attorneys say there were more people at that meeting.
The plaintiffs also decided to contribute $150,000 of the settlement to nonprofit, nonpartisan groups working for voter education and registration in Latino areas of Pringle's district.
Attorney Joseph Remcho, representing the plaintiffs, said Pringle and the Republican officials "may have succeeded in buying this election with security guards," but the settlement satisfies the five voters because it marks the highest sum ever paid in a voting-rights case.
"This clearly will send a message nationally that you just can't do this," Remcho said. "Goons in polling places will not be tolerated."
Most of the Republican officials involved in the case failed to return calls Wednesday seeking comment on the settlement and the documents that were released. Others declined to discuss the settlement or could not be reached. Their lawyers said last week that they admitted no wrongdoing by settling the case.
The GOP's Haskin declined to comment on Wednesday's developments and instead referred a reporter to a prepared statement issued by the Republican Party's defense attorneys last week. In the statement, the defendants said the five voters had "struck out" in their bids to overturn the election results and to prove any wrongdoing by Republicans.
Attorney Darryl R. Wold, who represented the county Republican Party, said the plaintiffs were on "a flight of fancy" in thinking they could have won the lawsuit.
Wednesday's announcement marks the end of the federal lawsuit, which was scheduled for trial Jan. 16 in Santa Ana. The defendants disclosed the settlement on Friday, but it was not final until the plaintiffs signed it Tuesday night.
Flanked by four of the five plaintiffs, Remcho presented documents that he said made his case a "sure-fire winner."
In addition to the Lewis deposition, the evidence included notes scribbled by political strategist Michael R. Williams after a meeting with another Pringle consultant, Carlos Rodriguez. Williams wrote in a corner of his calendar on Oct. 17, 1988, the words Carlos and goons and, in another corner, the names of security guard companies.
Also noted in the margin are the numbers of Republicans and Democrats registered in the area and Lewis' name, which Remcho said indicates that the Orange assemblyman had been involved in the decision.
An Oct. 19, 1988, memo from Williams to Rodriguez outlines the security guard program, noting that the 20 guards would be in uniform and that "voters will be challenged."
Wold, the county GOP's attorney, said that the 20 guards did nothing wrong, that in final instructions the guards had been told not to challenge or stop voters and that Williams' "goons" notation referred to Democrats who were allegedly registering voters illegally.
Other evidence presented included a map of the 72nd Assembly District, on which an employee of Rodriguez indicated to a sign-making company where they should post signs for the Pringle campaign, Remcho said.
The map showed plans to put signs reading "Thank You Curt Pringle" in predominantly Caucasian areas and signs--in Spanish and English--that said "Non Citizens Can't Vote" in largely Latino areas.
One of the plaintiffs at the press conference, Jose Diaz Vargas, 53, a Santa Ana police officer, said he was on his way to vote on Nov. 8, 1988, when he heard that uniformed guards were patrolling the polling areas. He went home but later changed his mind in anger and went back to vote.
"I was very upset," he said. "This kind of conduct, I did not expect this to happen in the United States. Maybe in some other countries, but not in the United States. . . . I went back to the voting place, but how many other people didn't go back?"