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Candidate Investigated Over Homes

Paul Loc Hoang Tran, running for council in Garden Grove, faces residency questions.

September 21, 2004|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

A Vietnamese American talk radio host who told listeners he has homes in two Orange County cities is being investigated by the district attorney's office to determine if he meets the qualifications to run for the Garden Grove City Council.

Paul Loc Hoang Tran, 45, faces accusations that he actually lives in a Mediterranean-style house in Irvine rather than a 1962 single-story home in Garden Grove, where his parents and sister live.

If it's determined he lives in the two-story house in Irvine's Westpark community, he could be disqualified as a candidate and even face criminal charges, officials said. Because the city ballot has already been printed, it would take a court order to remove his name and reprint the election card, election officials said.

Tran is registered to vote in Garden Grove, one of the criteria that help election officials establish residency. His wife is registered to vote in Irvine, however. Tran takes a tax exemption on his home 12 miles away in Irvine. He said his driver's license shows the Garden Grove address, but his cars are registered in Irvine.

A county prosecutor and an investigator from the district attorney's office confirmed they were looking into whether Tran broke any election laws by saying he lives in Garden Grove. Potential charges include perjury, false registration and false declaration of candidacy, which could be felony offenses with a maximum punishment of four years in state prison.

Local candidates are required to live in the jurisdiction they are seeking to represent. After a person files papers to run for office, the city clerk verifies where the candidate is registered to vote.

In Tran's case, Garden Grove City Clerk Ruth Smith said she verified with the Orange County registrar of voters that Tran was registered to vote in Garden Grove.

Officials say it is up to the individual to reregister if he or she moves.

Though candidates are allowed to own more than one home, there can be only one domicile, attorneys and experts said. Residency is determined by "the home in which the person intends to return to," said Dana Reed, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in election law.

Other factors that help determine candidates' residency include the address on their driver's licenses and car registrations, the location of their children's school and where they get their mail.

Tran, one of nine candidates competing for two seats on the Garden Grove City Council, denied any wrongdoing.

"I live in both houses. I work in Irvine and I live in Irvine, and I live in Garden Grove too," Tran said.

A longtime community activist, Tran recently was elected president of the Vietnamese Overseas Journalist Assn. He hosts a Vietnamese-language radio talk show in which he goes by the name Tuong Thang.

During a recent segment of the "Voice of Vietnamese" show on KXMX-AM (1190), Tran was discussing the housing market when he detoured to talk about "painful lessons" he learned when he bought his first house.

He explained that his taxes nearly doubled when he removed his sister's name from the title of the home, which was bought in 1984 for $105,000. After her name was removed, the house was reappraised and his annual taxes rose to about $2,000, he said.

He went on to explain that he later bought a home in Irvine and returns to Garden Grove on the weekends to be with his parents.

Several days after the show aired, the district attorney's office obtained copies of the program and investigators called the city clerk and requested his candidate filings and statements, a prosecutor said. Two investigators visited the neighborhoods last week.

According to public records, Tran took over sole ownership of the one-story, 1,473-square-foot home in a working-class neighborhood on Starboard Street in Garden Grove in 1991.

After he got married, he and his wife bought a two-story house in Irvine's Westpark neighborhood in 1993 for $275,000.

In an interview, Tran said he and his family spend weekends in Garden Grove to help care for his elderly parents and his sister, who he said is mentally ill.

"Three days a week, I help them and I sleep there too," Tran said.

He said he lives at the Tiara address in Irvine during the week to be near his job at Toshiba Inc., where he has been a computer engineer for 12 years. Tran said he takes his homeowner's mortgage tax exemption in Irvine because it provides bigger savings.

Residents on Tiara said they considered Tran an Irvine resident.

"He goes swimming every other day when I go," said Kathy Shinozaki, 21. "We say hi."

Shinozaki's mother, Thu, 40, said she picked up Tran's mail in December while the family was vacationing in Texas.

She said his children attend the local grade school and are dropped off at the Tiara home after school.

Legal experts and political observers said conflict over a candidate's residency is a common complaint in local politics.

"It's often a political issue, and voters think the candidate is a carpetbagger who truly doesn't represent himself and his beliefs are not in the city," said Frederic Woocher, a Santa Monica lawyer who specializes in election law.

In January 2003, West Covina Unified School District board member Peter Sabatino Jr., 49, was sentenced to probation and community service as part of a plea agreement after he pleaded guilty to falsifying his residency.

The year before, Huntington Park Councilwoman Linda Luz Guevara was sentenced to 180 days in jail and five years' probation after she was convicted of falsely stating her residence. And Richard Mayer, a former South Gate City Council candidate, was sentenced to six months in county jail after his conviction for lying about his residency.

County prosecutors did not say when they expected the Tran investigation to be completed. The city election is Nov. 2.

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