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California and the West

Voter Registration Cards Subject of Inquiry

Probe: County officials are looking into 16,000 allegedly fraudulent documents linked to two Democrat-affiliated groups.

October 14, 1998|JOSH MEYER and CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A criminal investigation is underway into the filing of 16,000 suspected fraudulent voter registration cards collected in Los Angeles County by workers for two groups affiliated with state Democrats, Registrar of Voters Conny McCormack said Tuesday. State officials said they are looking at irregularities on a much smaller scale in five other counties around the state.

Most of the suspected fraud in Los Angeles County involves voter registration for the upcoming November general election, though a small percentage also may involve last June's primary election, McCormack told county supervisors Tuesday.

The allegations under scrutiny in Los Angeles are that contract employees for two political groups turned in the 16,000 registration cards with fictitious names or nonexistent addresses. The two groups are the Assembly Democrats Statewide Voter Registration Project and the California Voter Registration Project, both of which seek to register new voters for the Democratic Party.

It was not clear Tuesday which other counties had forwarded suspicions of voter registration fraud to Secretary of State Bill Jones, who confirmed only that he was investigating allegations in five other counties that are similar to those disclosed Tuesday in Los Angeles County.

Most of the registration cards at issue are believed to contain the names of fictitious people and perhaps some who were illegally switched from one political party to another so that the two political organizations could collect commissions from the party that hired them, McCormack and other county officials said. Jones would not say how many cards were involved.

Investigators have yet to determine if there was any attempt to sway a particular race, or whether the committees simply did not aggressively monitor the small armies of bounty hunters who work for them in acquiring new registrants, McCormack and others said. McCormack has referred 8,000 of the cards to county Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, who said in a statement that he has opened a criminal investigation. Garcetti was not available for comment.

Lance Olson, a lawyer for the two groups, denied any coordinated effort to fraudulently register voters. He conceded that some of the registration cards would qualify as fraudulent, but insisted that the number would be "substantially fewer" than the 16,000 cited by McCormack as being potentially illegal.

Olson said the two groups do not use a system of paying for each person registered, and he was "baffled" that employees paid by the hour would file fraudulent documents if there was no incentive to do so.

McCormack countered that the employees had to meet periodic quotas and did have an incentive to falsify documents in order to keep their jobs.

The Assembly Democrats Statewide Voter Registration Project long has been a political operation of the Assembly Democratic caucus, currently headed by Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa of Los Angeles. Villaraigosa had no comment Tuesday.

Olson described the California Voter Registration Project as a 2-year-old political committee that receives its funding from the state Democratic Party and Democratic candidates.

He also said the suspect registration cards may have included simple clerical mistakes such as incomplete or old addresses of people who moved after they had registered.

What's more, Olson said, the two groups uncovered evidence of potential fraud and brought it to the attention of authorities in August.

McCormack sought to downplay the potential impact of the problem in an appearance before the Board of Supervisors at their weekly meeting. Although she called the extent of the suspected fraud "unbelievable and unprecedented," McCormack said early detection of the allegedly fraudulent registration forms has assured they will not sway the outcome of any races.

She said as many as 80 of the workers, whom she described as bounty hunters, were responsible for nearly all of the suspected fraud. Some of the workers each forwarded the names of as many as 1,000 people who never responded to follow-up registration forms sent out by her office to guard against fraudulent registration efforts.

Of the forms that did come back, said McCormack, many indicated that the people were fictitious or listed as living at addresses or locations that did not exist.

The names of the suspicious registrants have been entered into a computer, and that list will be continually cross-matched with the names of potential voters seeking absentee ballots, McCormack said.

"We feel like we have a handle on the integrity of the election issue, that this is not going to negatively impact our election," McCormack told the supervisors.

"We don't know what the motivation is at this point for these individuals that were out there [collecting signatures]--whether they were just out there making additional money, filling out names out of a phone book or what type of activity they were conducting."

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