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O.C. Reportedly Drops Latino Voting Probe

December 04, 1997|MICHAEL G. WAGNER and NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SANTA ANA — A year after launching a criminal investigation into the registration of noncitizen voters by a Latino rights organization, the Orange County district attorney is preparing to close the case without filing charges, sources said this week.

One source familiar with the investigation also said the Orange County Grand Jury chose not to indict any officials or employees of Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, which helped thousands of legal residents become citizens through its Santa Ana office and registered about 1,300 voters before the November 1996 election.

The source said that after prosecutors concluded their presentation about three weeks ago, they unsuccessfully sought indictments against two Hermandad employees. Hermandad's Santa Ana executive director, Nativo V. Lopez, was not one of them, the source said.

Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi declined to comment Wednesday.

The investigation began after it was discovered that many of those who registered to vote at Hermandad did so before taking the oath of citizenship and were thus ineligible to cast ballots. The controversy drew national attention when former Rep. Robert K. Dornan claimed his narrow 984-vote defeat to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) was due to voter fraud.

Rumors about the end of the investigation have circulated in Orange County for weeks. The district attorney's office has no legal obligation to announce the end of an investigation and declined to comment about what, if anything, has delayed the conclusion of this case. However, sources said legal questions are under review concerning what information can be released when grand jury deliberations do not result in indictments.

Lopez attorney Edward Munoz said the denouement would be "a weird ending to a bizarre investigation," which included assistance from the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the seizure of several vanloads of computers and documents from Hermandad offices in January.

"But I suppose that an objective and fair-minded person would say the DA's office had the best evidence, they presented their best case, and for all of the rhetoric, they could not prove criminal conduct," he said. "I guess to that extent you could say that the system works."

Investigators began looking at Hermandad in late 1996 after evidence surfaced that some people registered to vote there before completing the months-long process of becoming citizens. A check with INS records showed at least 227 people registered at Hermandad improperly, according to the search warrant used to seize records in January. That figure increased to 305 after a review this year of about 1,300 Hermandad registrations by Secretary of State Bill Jones.

Lopez conceded that noncitizens registered to vote, but attributed the problem to confusion and overzealousness by workers and volunteers.

Prompted by Dornan's complaints of voter fraud, the House of Representatives' Oversight Committee began its own investigation in February into alleged improper voting in the 46th Congressional District.

That investigation will not be influenced by the outcome of the Orange County district attorney's probe, said Jason Poblete, a spokesman for the committee chairman, Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield). Poblete said he has not even followed the progress of the grand jury.

The oversight committee received four boxes of subpoenaed documents from Hermandad just this week. But although congressional investigators have expressed interest in the group's role, questions of intent and motive are largely irrelevant to their mission. The panel's main task is to determine how many illegal votes were cast and whether the number is sufficient to affect the outcome of the race.

Secretary of State Jones also weighed in with his own allegations of improper voting in the 46th Congressional District. He announced the start of his investigation in January 1997, and in March, called for a review of all 1.3 million registered voters in Orange County. The review is still pending.

Jones also recently endorsed reforms to discourage voting by noncitizens, including a mandatory citizenship checkoff box on the voter registration form and new felony penalties for fraudulent voter registration.

The investigations, and media coverage of them, have caused deep divisions in Orange County, which is undergoing profound demographic and political shifts.

Some Latino rights activists have criticized accounts in the press, particularly The Times, as inflammatory and lacking in context. A group of Latino leaders that formed in defense of Hermandad and Lopez also said the district attorney's investigation was heavy-handed, particularly the January execution of the search warrant that closed Hermandad's offices for most of the day.

Lopez said last week that the investigation left a shadow over Hermandad that hurt its fund-raising abilities and cut into its membership. Before the 1996 election, Hermandad was processing 2,000 citizenship applicants a month, and the number is now down to 1,000 a month, he said.

Times staff writer Jodi Wilgoren contributed to this story.

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