WASHINGTON — Stepping up its campaign to block an investigation of voter fraud that could overturn last year's ouster of Rep. Robert K. Dornan at the polls, the House Democratic leadership Thursday asked Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to look into whether it is illegal for Republicans to share INS data with California officials.
Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) also vowed to use any means necessary to complicate congressional business unless the probe of Democrat Loretta Sanchez's 984-vote victory over Dornan in Orange County's 46th Congressional District is dropped. And other lawmakers said there may be class-action lawsuits filed under the Voting Rights Act.
"Be on notice, from this day forward: If there is an attempt to vacate this election against the wishes of the voters . . . on some whim or suspicion or hope, there will be a heavy price to pay from the Democratic Party," Gephardt said at a Capitol Hill news conference. "It is wrong. It is immoral. It is against every principle of this democracy, and we will not let it stand."
House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Bakersfield) shot back with a news conference of his own, accusing the Democrats of making "outrageous and inaccurate statements" and releasing an opinion from the House counsel that backs his sharing of Immigration and Naturalization Service records with California Secretary of State Bill Jones.
"There are some people who are attempting to misrepresent and confuse at the very least," he said, standing in the same spot where Gephardt and his cohorts had been earlier in the day. "It's not an attempt to inform, it's an attempt to inflame."
Thomas promised to pursue the 10-month-old investigation until he had followed every path to its end, despite the Democrats' threats.
"Our job is to determine what happened accurately, not what people thought happened," he said. "This much we know: Fraud was committed. . . . My goal is to find out how many [illegal voters] there were, and I will then have completed my job."
Jones, who had originally questioned whether it would violate privacy laws for him to peruse data that Thomas' committee had obtained from the INS, on Thursday said that Thomas' attorneys had allayed his concerns and that state investigators would soon begin reviewing the material.
In addition, Jones and Thomas denied the Democrats' contention that private biographical data--from birth and marriage records to employment, health and credit histories--on as many as 500,000 U.S. residents had been handed over to the secretary of state.
Thomas said Jones "partially has the results of our analysis" comparing Orange County's voter rolls with INS databases, and would eventually get the entire research product; he would not say how many people the records cover. A spokeswoman for Jones, however, said her office has yet to receive any such material from Thomas' committee.
A spokesman for Reno could not be reached for comment, but a source in the office said it was unlikely that the Department of Justice could prevent the committee from sharing its data with a state agency.
At the Gephardt news conference, Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as well as the lead Democrat on the oversight panel, decried the transfer of INS records to Jones' office.
"The Congress shouldn't be in the business of going through and disseminating the confidential records of innocent, law-abiding U.S. citizens and residents. . . . No matter what the end, the means is not justified," he said. "It's time to stop intimidating Asian, Hispanic and minority voters. It's time to end this witch hunt of an investigation before anyone else's privacy rights are violated."
Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) called the investigation "insulting," "outrageous" and a "sham."
"We will do whatever we can as a minority," said Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), "to mete out justice on the floor of the House."
Sanchez did not attend the news conference but later released a statement warning that residents whose INS files would be reviewed by the secretary of state "will soon personally experience Dornan's scare and intimidation tactics to do anything to get back the seat he formerly held in Congress."
"This is not about counting votes," the statement said. "This is about partisan politics, and that is un-American."
Times staff writer Kaspar Zeuthen contributed to this story.