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High Cost, Low Return

August 07, 1998

It set a bad example for the House Oversight Committee to reimburse a candidate who challenged an election and lost his case.

This week the committee awarded former Rep. Robert K. Dornan $320,000 and incumbent Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) $250,000 to help pay their lawyers. That's on top of an estimated $300,000 spent by the committee and $500,000 to $1 million by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. There isn't much to show for all the time and money spent. Though winners and, according to the committee chairman, one loser in such challenges previously were reimbursed, the payment to Dornan makes it too easy for losing candidates in the future to pursue expensive challenges.

The committee investigated Dornan's allegations that he lost the 1996 election in the 46th Congressional District to Sanchez by 984 votes because of illegal ballots. After dragging out its inquiry, the committee rejected Dornan's challenge. The full House followed suit.

The House Oversight Committee said there were 748 improper ballots, 624 from immigrants who were not citizens when they registered to vote. Sanchez supporters argued that even the 624 figure was too high. How many of the improper votes were for Sanchez was never determined.

Dornan is running against Sanchez again in November. Rep. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield), the committee chairman, says that the reimbursement to Dornan was justified because his challenge led to the discovery of illegal votes, the purging of some names from the Orange County voter rolls and reforms in the electoral process. But even so, in the end Dornan's claim was unsuccessful.

The dispute over the seat has ended up costing taxpayers far too much. It has distracted attention from congressional business and district concerns. Regrettably, it now stands as an invitation to any losing candidate in a close election to mount a challenge.

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