WASHINGTON — The congressional committee weighing whether to overturn last fall's election of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) because of alleged voter fraud decided Wednesday to ask the House to order the U.S. attorney to file criminal charges against a Santa Ana civil rights group for failing to comply with a subpoena.
The panel also moved to demand that the following provide answers to written questions: Sanchez; Robert K. Dornan, the Republican she defeated in the 46th Congressional District; Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, the Santa Ana group that is suspected of illegally registering noncitizens to vote; and two others involved in opposing Dornan during the 1996 campaign.
At the same time, the committee voted to quash outstanding subpoenas for Sanchez and several other witnesses, and to reissue subpoenas to Hermandad's leader, Nativo Lopez, and Michael Farber of "Dump Dornan," both of whom have failed for months to comply.
The largely technical actions came during the House Oversight Committee's first hearing on the case in months, and followed a highly charged political debate over whether the investigation into the election's validity--triggered by Dornan's challenge of the election results--should continue or be curtailed.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," said Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.). "The process here seems to be a torturous stringing along."
Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield), who heads the committee, said he does not know when the resolution requesting the criminal prosecution of Hermandad will come before the full House. In any case, it is unclear what authority the House has to force action by the U.S. attorney.
Mark Rosen, a lawyer for Hermandad, said the organization was being unfairly targeted because several individuals and organizations had refused to respond to subpoenas. "You want to intimidate Hispanic voters, so who do you pick on? The Hispanic organization."
The only way his clients would testify, Rosen said, is if they were offered complete immunity from any charges of wrongdoing.
Hermandad is already under criminal investigation by the Orange County district attorney's office and the California secretary of state, though no charges have been filed.
Thomas and Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), who heads a task force that the committee established on the Sanchez-Dornan contest, blamed the delay in resolving the dispute on the Immigration and Naturalization Service's slow and incomplete production of data, as well as the failure of Sanchez and numerous other witnesses and groups to comply with subpoenas.
Thomas and Ehlers expressed hope that the written questions, which will be submitted within a week and give the witnesses seven more days to respond, would speed the process, but vowed not to drop the probe until every avenue has been explored.
Sanchez pledged to comply with "any reasonable, legal, constitutionally valid request for information" from the committee, but called the decision to question her and others in writing an "unprecedented abuse of congressional power."
Steve Jost, Sanchez's chief of staff, accused the Republican-controlled committee of concocting "wild conspiracy theories" about Sanchez busing illegal immigrants across the border to vote on election night.
With the election controversy dragging into its 10th month, Wednesday's hearing came amid increasing political pressure from Democrats, Latinos and women urging a halt to the probe. More than two dozen female and Latino members of Congress filled the committee's chamber with orange "Free Loretta" ribbons pinned to their lapels.
"This is not Loretta Sanchez in isolation. This is part and parcel of a Republican philosophy . . . that would deny minorities in this country the right to vote," Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) said before the hearing. "This is un-American, and it's simply wrong."
Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), who previously threatened to shut down the House or prevent it from adjourning if the investigation was not dropped, has called a meeting of his party's leadership to discuss this strategy today.
Despite the colorful speechifying, Wednesday's events revealed no hint of progress in the number of illegal voters the committee may have uncovered.
Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) claimed that "this committee does not have . . . sufficient evidence to find anything other than that Loretta Sanchez was duly elected." But Ehlers quickly countered that "there's certainly substantial evidence of irregularities in the election. The question is how [much] irregularity."
Times staff writers Janet Wilson and Peter M. Warren contributed to this story from Costa Mesa.