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NEWS ANALYSIS

Proof Appears Lacking; Dornan's Fervor Isn't

Politics: His evidence so far is riddled with inaccuracies. Insisting he's found more, he'll present his case Saturday.

April 18, 1997|DEXTER FILKINS and PETER M. WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — After nearly six months of searching, former Congressman Robert K. Dornan doesn't appear to have found enough illicit ballots to overturn his loss to Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

But he isn't giving up.

On Saturday, Dornan and his lawyers will stand before a high-powered congressional panel at the County Hall of Administration and make their best case for nullifying Sanchez's 984-vote upset last November.

In new papers released late Thursday to be submitted to Congress, they are hinting that they might already have more than enough tainted ballots.

"I believe this seat was stolen by noncitizen voting," the former congressman says, repeating the mantra that has sustained him through his election challenge.

So far, however, Dornan has not proved his case.

In papers filed with Congress in February, Dornan contends that he and his investigators have discovered at least 1,789 illegal ballots.

Yet a close review of Dornan's contentions shows them to be overstated and riddled with inaccuracies.

According to information compiled by several government agencies, and analyzed by The Times, Dornan and his investigators have, at most, discovered 440 illicit ballots in the central Orange County district he used to represent.

The overwhelming majority of those ballots come from one place: Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, the Santa Ana Latino rights organization that registered as many as 372 voters before they had become citizens.

That's far less than Dornan needs to unseat Sanchez. And Dornan has provided little new evidence to suggest that he can find any more unlawful ballots.

That may all change Saturday, in what is expected to be only the first of several hearings into the Sanchez-Dornan race.

"We expect to demonstrate that there were hundreds of noncitizens that voted in this election," Dornan attorney Bill Hart said. "There were other significant anomalies in the vote tabulation, and in the people who were allowed to vote."

In particular, Dornan and his lawyers want the government to look into whatever citizenship records exist for each of the 106,255 people who voted in the 46th Congressional District race. They are emboldened by the amount of alleged fraud they've already found in only a few short months, and intend to delve even more deeply with the congressional committee's blessing.

The prospect of giving Dornan more time, however, angers Sanchez, the Garden Grove Democrat.

Sanchez said Dornan hasn't found enough illegal ballots to overturn the election, and hasn't put forward any new evidence to show there are any more questionable votes.

It's time, Sanchez said, for Dornan to give up.

"Bob Dornan has had six months to substantiate his charges, and he hasn't done it," Sanchez said. "Are there are enough fraudulent ballots to change the outcome of this election? The answer is no."

The face-off--between the mercurial Dornan and the giant-killer Sanchez--promises to turn Saturday's hearing into a raucous and memorable event. Inside Santa Ana's Hall of Administration, three out-of-town congressmen will try to sift through conflicting arguments over how many illegal votes were cast and whether to keep the Dornan challenge alive. Outside, hundreds of demonstrators recruited by Hermandad are expected to be marching in the streets.

The hearing will set the stage for a larger clash in the halls of Congress. For whatever is decided Saturday, an eight-member congressional committee--and perhaps the House of Representatives itself--will have the final say over whether Dornan gets a new election.

The Republicans, who control Congress, have made it clear they intend to search carefully for evidence of voter fraud--no matter how long it takes.

"We thought the allegations were credible," said Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), who chairs the House Oversight Committee. "I can assure you that this task force will investigate what happened in this election."

On Wednesday, the committee voted to compel community groups and individuals to turn over documents subpoenaed by Dornan's attorneys. Sanchez's chief of staff said the congresswoman will take to the full House her fight against subpoenas for her campaign documents and financial records.

Sanchez and the Democrats promise, however, that they will fight any attempt to obtain information from the people Dornan has targeted unless he provides specific evidence of wrongdoing.

They say Dornan's inquiry would violate the privacy of thousands of voters and set a terrible precedent.

"In any election in the future, anybody could walk in and say there has been fraud," said Fred Woocher, a Los Angeles lawyer working for Sanchez. "And they would be given all the power in the world to investigate. That's my fear."

Both sides are bracing for a fight in an arena where the rules aren't clear.

"This is absolutely virgin territory," said Mark Braden, counsel to the House Oversight Committee.

The politicians who will decide whether Dornan gets a new election promise to banish politics and stick to math.

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