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Dornan, Sanchez Square Off at Hearing

Investigation: Congressional task force hears defeated congressman's allegations of voter fraud. Election's winner dismisses his claims.

April 20, 1997|DEXTER FILKINS and PETER M. WARREN and JEAN O. PASCO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez and former Congressman Bob Dornan faced off Saturday in a dramatic session before a congressional task force, with Dornan blaming his election loss last November on what he called the greatest case of voter fraud in American history and Sanchez dismissing his claims as the rantings of a desperate man.

The all-day hearing, held before about 300 people at the Orange County Hall of Administration while about 2,000 people protested outside, featured forceful arguments and caustic exchanges but ended without resolving whether there should be a new election.

The committee, chaired by Rep. Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.), made no decision on whether Dornan would get another shot at Sanchez, who won by 984 votes, but indicated that further hearings would be held and it would be "several months" before the matter is decided.

But Ehlers declared that Dornan's supporters had made a strong enough case to continue searching for fraudulent ballots, and he urged the Sanchez camp to turn over information that Dornan wants.

"There's no question there was fraud in this election," Ehlers said. "The question is how much."

He predicted that the committee would continue to investigate, after which Congress would either declare Sanchez or Dornan the winner or hold a new election, he said.

Meanwhile, outside the hall, Sanchez supporters marched, chanted and decried what they called a Republican-led campaign to vilify immigrants and blunt Latino political strength. A handful of Republican volunteers and anti-immigration activists cheered Dornan on.

The hearings, though inconclusive, appeared to force a showdown over the Dornan investigation. The three-member panel--two Republicans and one Democrat--reaffirmed Dornan's right to compel groups and individuals to turn over sensitive information related to possible voter fraud.

Dornan's lawyers said they were particularly interested in securing federal databases that would allow them to check the citizenship of each of the 106,255 voters who cast ballots in the 46th Congressional District race.

Lawyers for groups who have received subpoenas from Dornan reiterated their contention that the tactic was illegal. The Sanchez camp threatened to take the case to federal court, while Dornan's legal team threatened to have Sanchez held in contempt if she did not comply.

Saturday's hearing marked the first time that Sanchez and Dornan have squared off in the same room over allegations of illegal voting.

Dornan and his lawyers made their case first, outlining what they said was a massive example of organized and intentional fraud--replete with phantom voters, double voters, noncitizens and illegal immigrants. They claimed to have discovered hundreds of illegal ballots, as well as government vote-counting procedures so shoddy as to call into question the outcome of the race.

In papers filed with Congress in February, Dornan contended that his investigators have discovered 1,789 illegal ballots.

"Hundreds of my constituents had their votes canceled out by fraud," Dornan told the congressmen. "My victory should be restored."

Dornan asserted that his investigation ought to go forward because it had uncovered problems threatening the integrity of elections nationwide.

"I believe you will feel compelled to come to the same conclusion I have," Dornan said from the podium. "That there is a historical, constitutional crisis of voter fraud. It is growing nationwide, and it is growing year in and year out."

Sanchez fired back, saying that Dornan's reckless investigation had smeared hundreds of legal voters and legal immigrants. She referred to the claims as "Dornan's desperate delusions."

"It has been insulting and humiliating for these people to be named as players in a huge conspiracy when all they wanted to do was exercise their constitutional right to vote," Sanchez told the task force. "Bob Dornan's case is composed of distortion, rumors and innuendo."

Sanchez testified that her investigators had sifted through Dornan's claims and found them lacking in almost every respect. At most, she said, about 70 ballots could be nullified, which is far less than what Dornan needs to show for a new election.

Sanchez told the task force that Dornan's case was so weak, and his request for investigatory powers so sweeping, that allowing him to go forward would threaten the rights of thousands of voters.

"The charges aren't supported by any credible evidence that would come close to changing the outcome of this election," Sanchez said. "For this committee to sanction such a broad-based investigation would be an invasion of every American's right to vote."

The division between the task force's two Republicans--Ehlers and Robert W. Ney of Ohio--and the lone Democrat, Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, was clear.

Ehlers underscored the panel's "very serious and weighty responsibility" in determining the correct outcome of the election.

Hoyer indicated that he opposed the inquiry, calling it "premature at best." He stated flatly "that six months into the process" Dornan had not been able to "produce credible evidence that if true would alter the outcome of the election."

He also said subpoena authority had been granted Dornan by the panel "in an untimely and inappropriate manner."

Richard Rogers, director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service's Los Angeles office, said it remained unclear whether the INS would do the computerized voter match requested by California Secretary of State Bill Jones.

The match is a central issue in the fight, with Dornan seeking it as a way to boost the number of ballots that might be called invalid, and Sanchez rejecting it as an invasion of privacy and also questioning the accuracy of INS records.

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