At a chaotic sidewalk news conference Sunday, Orange County congressional candidate Tan Nguyen defended a letter his campaign sent to 14,000 registered voters that warned in Spanish that immigrants could be jailed or deported for voting.
"There has been no crime committed, so why is there a criminal investigation three weeks prior to a very important election?" asked Nguyen outside his campaign office in Garden Grove. It was his first public appearance since the controversy erupted last week. "What is going on? Who is fueling this investigation?"
Nguyen, a Republican challenging Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez in the 47th District, said that he would stay in the race despite the national uproar over the letter and calls by Orange County Republican leaders for him to drop out.
"I am innocent, and there is no way in hell that I am going to withdraw," Nguyen said. "I am not going to quit this race, and I am going to win this race."
His speech was punctuated by outbursts from a crowd of roughly 50 that angrily demanded more information about the letter's authorship. Nguyen maintained that the letter was sent without his knowledge. But he added that, after firing the staffer he said was responsible for it, he was asking her to return because he believes the mailer was fair.
In the letter, registered voters with Latino surnames in Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Anaheim were warned "that if your residence in this country is illegal or you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that could result in jail time...."
The mailer has sparked state and federal investigations over possible voting rights violations. On Friday, Nguyen's campaign headquarters, his home and a staffer's residence were searched by California Department of Justice investigators.
A spokesman for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said Sunday that the investigators were continuing to review the evidence and movement in the case could come this week.
Orange County officials said they would decide this week whether to send a second letter to the affected voters making it clear that naturalized citizens have the right to vote.
Former U.S. Atty. William Braniff, a lawyer for Nguyen's campaign, said Sunday that the controversy was caused by the news media and others who inferred that the word emigrado, or immigrant, included U.S. citizens. In fact, Braniff said, emigrado in the letter merely referred to U.S. immigrants who have legal status but not citizenship -- and thus do not have the right to vote.
Braniff declined, however, to say why the campaign had used letterhead closely resembling that of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform without the group's permission and why it was signed by a fictional "Sergio Ramirez."
"These are fair questions and could be answered if they were being asked if this was a purely political forum, but there is an investigation going on," Braniff said.
He also declined to comment on accounts by sources familiar with the investigation who said an LAPD officer had paid for the $4,000 mailing of the letter.
Nguyen lambasted his opponent, Sanchez, saying she was "fueling this hysteria," and said investigators were "terrorizing my family and volunteers" and violating his right to free speech.
The candidate said his campaign had been crippled by the government's seizure of his mailing lists and other material.
No representative of the Sanchez campaign was immediately available for comment.