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Group Should Be Charged in Voter Probe, Panel Says

House: Hermandad Mexicana Nacional in Santa Ana ignored subpoena in investigation of Rep. Loretta Sanchez's election, committee says.

September 25, 1997|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

"I have a commitment to be accurate, to be precise, and to speak with finality," Thomas said at the two-hour hearing. "You don't say, 'Well there was some fraud, but we don't care about it because it's gone on too long.' There seems to be a growing understanding in political circles that if you stonewall long enough people will forget about it. We are going to continue this process until we get to the bottom of it."

Thomas and other committee members refused to say what questions they would ask Sanchez, Dornan and the two other witnesses, Farber and former Sanchez campaign aide Benny Hernandez. At an April hearing in Orange County, two witnesses testified that Hernandez had showed them how to illegally vote twice.

Sanchez's chief of staff, Steve Jost, said Wednesday that Hernandez had quit her campaign and gone to work for the Orange County Democratic Party months before the election, making that testimony irrelevant.

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."

Jost accused the Republican-controlled committee of concocting "wild conspiracy theories" about Sanchez busing illegal immigrants across the border to vote on election night.

He also denounced the party-line vote to pursue criminal charges against Hermandad for violating the subpoena. "The judges of the election contest have stepped down from the dais and become the investigators and prosecutors," Jost said after the hearing. Thomas "seems to have forgotten about the separation of powers."

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.

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