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House Expected to Drop Probe of Sanchez Election

February 04, 1998|PETER M. WARREN and JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Republican-led task force looking into the 1996 election of Rep. Loretta Sanchez will recommend today that the House dismiss a challenge by former Rep. Robert K. Dornan, the panel chairman said Tuesday.

Despite finding "substantial voter fraud" in the election, which Republican Dornan lost by 984 votes, the task force said it "could not prove" that there were enough illegal votes to overturn the election.

Task force Chairman Vernon J. Ehlers (R-Mich.) blamed the Immigration and Naturalization Service and key witnesses for not cooperating in the inquiry, which began 14 months ago.

The recommendation of Ehlers' panel is virtually certain to be adopted by the full House Oversight Committee and the House. A Republican leadership source said that could happen as early as today.

The task force found that about 750 noncitizens voted in the election, a Republican leadership source said. That is far fewer than the 2,500 illegal votes that Republican sources had talked about uncovering in the past several months. During Dornan's investigation, the Orange County registrar of voters found about 125 illegally cast absentee ballots in the race.

Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) celebrated news of the panel's expected recommendation, calling it "a great victory for the citizens of Orange County. False accusations don't work, and even Dornan's subpoenas can't manufacture evidence."

At the annual congressional correspondents' dinner Tuesday evening in Washington, Sanchez's colleagues rushed to toast her as word of the impending dismissal buzzed throughout the ballroom.

"They should have done it back in February," Sanchez said of the panel's decision. "It's a waste of taxpayers' money. They did this to try and weaken me for '98."

Yet Dornan claimed victory too, citing the task force's assertion that it was stonewalled by witnesses and the INS.

"I feel totally vindicated. And please recall that, to this moment, Loretta Sanchez ridiculously claims there wasn't a single instance of voter fraud in the 46th District," he said. "I won my 10th election on Nov. 5, 1996, and it was stolen from me by hundreds of non-Americans voting this veteran out of office. That is outrageous."

Sensing early Tuesday that the tide was turning against him, Dornan had announced his withdrawal from the June primary to select the Republican who will run against Sanchez in November. Dornan said he feared that GOP congressional leaders would use his continued candidacy as an excuse not to overturn Sanchez's 1996 victory.

But after Ehlers' announcement, Dornan abandoned that strategy. "All bets are off now," he said, raising the possibility that he may stay in the race.

While ending the inquiry, Ehlers signaled in his statement that Republicans will use the politically charged battle over noncitizen voting to press a Republican proposal to toughen voting laws nationwide.

Dornan, who filed the election challenge in December 1996, has alleged that voting by noncitizens and other irregularities caused his narrow loss to Sanchez. During the investigation, Dornan tried to subpoena records from labor unions, voting rights groups, Sanchez and others in an effort to prove that he had actually won a 10th term in Congress. Few of the subpoenas were answered.

The sustained effort led to charges by Democrats that the Republicans were targeting Sanchez because she is a woman and a Latina. Latino leaders in Orange County pointed to the GOP as unfairly singling out Latinos for an investigation of noncitizen voting. And Republicans fretted that the controversy could encourage the Latino electorate to align permanently with the Democratic Party.

Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) called the task force's decision a victory for Latinos nationwide. "It's only a vindication of what we said all along, that this was a witch hunt," Menendez said. "When we stand together . . . they can't suppress our voice."

State and county investigations found that several hundred noncitizens cast ballots in the election, but the House inquiry was weakened when an Orange County grand jury in December refused to indict anyone. The INS reviewed records of tens of thousands of immigrants for the panel during the inquiry but said publicly that its data alone was inadequate to prove that any specific voter may have registered improperly.

Dornan's attorney, William Hart, cited Ehlers' conclusions as damning.

"It is a pretty remarkable statement that the only reason they could not get to the bottom of this was stonewalling by witnesses, including Loretta Sanchez and government agencies controlled by Democrats," he said. "The strategy of stonewalling by Sanchez and her supporters worked. That is the message. Stonewalling works. It is a sad commentary."

Democrats Tuesday applauded the task force's decision.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) congratulated Sanchez at the correspondents' dinner and hugged her. "You mean we're OK? Oh, that's wonderful," Boxer said.

In other developments Tuesday, California Secretary of State Bill Jones proposed his own package of federal and state laws to tighten voting and registration rules to protect "the integrity of the electoral system."

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