At least 13 Los Angeles County residents who were not citizens illegally registered to vote last year under the auspices of an embattled Latino social services agency, a Times inquiry has found.
The residents told The Times that they completed their voter registration cards with the assistance of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. But at the time, none of the 13 had been sworn in as citizens, as the state Constitution requires, according to interviews.
Hermandad is under investigation in Orange County for alleged voter fraud.
The Los Angeles County figures seem small in comparison to the 721 in Orange County who, according to a federal and state audit, had not completed their citizenship process before they registered. But they represent the first indication of irregularities with the Los Angeles County voter registration work of Hermandad. The first Orange County report, in late December, was of 18 people having registered illegally.
According to Los Angeles County records, Hermandad requested and received a total of 7,000 registration affidavits in 1994 and 1996. As of the end of January, only 431 had been completed and sent in to the registrar, nearly all of them last September and October.
Of those new voters, 173 who were born outside the country went to the polls in the November election.
The Times tried to contact those 173, reaching and interviewing nearly 100 people.
All 13 in Los Angeles County said they were pursuing American citizenship at the time they signed up to vote, having finished civics classes offered by Hermandad and having passed written and oral tests administered by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. But none said they had taken the oath of allegiance, which formally confers citizenship. Only one said she voted in the November election without having first been sworn in.
"Only when you're a U.S. citizen can you sign a voter registration card," said Beth Miller, a spokeswoman for California Secretary of State Bill Jones.
Many of the immigrants said that Hermandad workers helped them fill out registration affidavits directly after their INS interviews. But the nonprofit Latino rights organization--one of the state's largest providers of citizenship classes, with thousands of students at more than 70 sites--denied any impropriety by its staff in assisting clients to register.
"Everyone certainly knew that people . . . could not be fully, officially registered until they took the pledge. We made that completely clear" to employees and clients, said Bert Corona, executive director of Hermandad, which has offices in downtown Los Angeles, North Hollywood and Santa Ana.
But Corona acknowledged that possible misunderstandings by staff members or overeagerness to vote on the part of students may have resulted in some mistakes.
The 13 registration cards all bear the signature of Corona's son, Frank N. Corona, who helped fill out the registration cards as a Hermandad worker. Frank Corona acknowledged in an interview that he generally dated the affidavits he collected.
Bert Corona said that his son is mentally disabled, but understood the rules governing voter registration.
"We made it very, very clear from the onset how it was supposed to be done. We observed quite a bit of it," Corona said. "Even right up to two days before voting, before Nov. 6, people would come up and ask us, 'Can we go over there and vote?' And I said, 'Not unless you've taken the pledge.' "
In Orange County, state and local authorities have opened a criminal investigation into whether the organization illegally registered hundreds of noncitizens who later voted in the general election, some of them in the tightly contested race won by Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) over longtime incumbent Robert K. Dornan. Dornan is challenging the result.
Citing allegations of widespread voter fraud leveled against Hermandad, Jones on Friday ordered a review of Orange County's 1.3 million residents registered to vote in last year's general election.
Rob Lapsley, Jones' chief of staff, declined to comment Saturday on whether the state investigation of Hermandad would expand to Los Angeles County.
"In the course of investigations, we get information from a lot of sources," Lapsley said. "We won't comment on where we go next or when or what we do."
No races are in dispute in connection with Hermandad in Los Angeles County. But The Times investigation, which involved dozens of interviews of residents who registered using affidavits issued to Hermandad by the county registrar, discovered that a number of Hermandad clients in Los Angeles signed up to vote before it was legal to do so.
Several told of being assured by Hermandad officials that they had qualified to register--although not to actually cast a ballot--immediately after passing the oral exam given by the INS.