Even as he prepared to step before the cameras Friday in an effort to mend his tattered candidacy for Congress, the worst week of Tan Nguyen's political life got bleaker still, as state agents raided his Garden Grove campaign headquarters and Santa Ana home, hauling off computers and bags of evidence.
The investigation by California Department of Justice agents stems from a racially charged letter that Nguyen admits his office sent to about 14,000 registered voters in central Orange County. The letter, which warned "immigrants" they could be jailed or deported if they tried to vote, has spurred condemnation across the political spectrum and an investigation into possible voting rights violations.
Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant who is running to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez, maintains that he neither wrote nor authorized the instantly infamous letter, claiming it was the work of a campaign manager he refused to name. According to the head of the Orange County Republican Party, however, the mailing house that sent the letter said Nguyen had a direct hand in it.
State agents arrived both at Nguyen's campaign office and his home about 1 p.m. Friday with search warrants, scouring files, plumbing cabinets and bagging evidence.
Nguyen had to cancel a planned afternoon news conference, which his lawyer, David Wiechert, said would be rescheduled for next week.
"I do not believe he'll be arrested," said Wiechert, who specializes in white collar criminal defense work. "My belief is he'll be cleared. He's asserted his innocence."
The lawyer said agents from the state attorney general's office had questioned Nguyen for two hours Thursday and that he was cooperating fully with their investigation.
"A search doesn't mean the person whose office is being searched is guilty," Wiechert added. "This is a political firestorm of high-ranking Republicans and Democrats speculating about an investigation they have no knowledge of."
According to a source close to the investigation, the attorney general's office has determined that an LAPD officer, who is a friend of a worker in Nguyen's office, paid $4,000 on a credit card for the bulk mailing of the letter and used an alias.
In addition to the letter, the attorney general's office is investigating a racially charged poster that was recently hung in Santa Ana's Delhi Park. Translated from Spanish, the poster reads, "If you are a resident or are illegal, if you vote, you will be thrown out."
Park regulars say there were dozens of the posters hanging in the park for nearly a week. "They were put on just about every tree and pole around here," said Juan Cabrera, who was visiting the park Friday.
Santa Ana Councilman Jose Solorio found one of the posters on the ground in the park Friday and passed the information on to the attorney general's office. Solorio wondered whether there was a link between the letters sent out by Nguyen's office and the park posters. "The rhetoric in the signs sounds similar to the letters, so I have my suspicions," Solorio said.
State attorney general spokesman Nathan Barankin said the posters were "under review" but would not say whether that probe would be tied to the letter investigation. "We can't rule [the posters] in or out," he said.
Javier Gonzalez, executive director of Strengthening Our Lives, a union-based voter drive campaign, said the poster's use of the word "resident" was deceptive. He said his mother, a naturalized U.S. citizen, considers herself a U.S. resident, and might think from reading the letter that she should not vote.
Meanwhile, the letter from Nguyen's office, which has prompted the GOP to disown him, continues to generate howls of indignation. "When you tell immigrants who have become citizens they can go to jail for voting, you are spreading lies, not liberty," said an ACLU news release, calling for Orange County Registrar Neal Kelley to send out letters correcting misinformation in the original letter.
Said Mai Cong, president of the Vietnamese Community of Orange County: "I was distressed to learn that someone in our immigrant community is involved in a case of voter intimidation. This is like 'a single worm that spoils that soup,' as we Vietnamese Americans used to say."
Among the recipients of the letter was Kristen Panagua, a Disneyland Hotel worker, who said it angered her. "I respect and love this country," said Panagua, who registered to vote six years ago after becoming a U.S. citizen. "They are trying to intimidate us to keep us from being part of it."
Isabel Procopio, a janitor and volunteer for Strengthening Our Lives, said she was knocking on doors in Garden Grove on Saturday as part of a campaign to encourage voter participation. Of the 30 doors she approached, she found 10 residents who had received the letter. "Many people told me they are really afraid," she said. "They also said they were angry. I'm telling them not to let racist Republicans intimidate us."
Gustavo Arellano, the OC Weekly staffer who writes the syndicated "Ask A Mexican!" column, said the letter would generate a massive backlash among Latino voters, who would be galvanized to defeat Republicans in local elections in November.
"Latinos are going to hear about this [and say], 'Oh, Republicans: anti-immigrant,' " he said. "They're not going to pay attention to the fact that the Republican Party has denounced the letter, or that Gov. Schwarzenegger has called it a hate crime. They're just going to chalk it up as another instance of GOP xenophobia."
Staff writer Christine Hanley contributed to this report.