Congressional candidate Tan Nguyen personally bought the list of voters to whom a racially charged letter was mailed, warning that immigrants could be jailed or deported for voting, according to the president of the company that sold the list and sources familiar with the still-unfolding investigation.
Nguyen requested information on registered Democrats in the central Orange County Congressional district with Spanish surnames who were born outside the United States, according to people familiar with a state investigation into the letter. Nguyen, a Republican, is running an underdog campaign against Democratic incumbent Loretta Sanchez.
"The only thing I can really say is, the candidate purchased the data, which he had a legal right to do, and if he went and did something illegal with it, he's going to have to answer for it," said Jim Hayes, president of Burbank-based Political Data Inc., the largest voter information broker in the state. Hayes met with investigators and provided them with the same information last week, sources said.
Nguyen, who has drawn national scorn for his campaign's role in the mailing, maintains that he had nothing to do with the letter's production or distribution, saying a campaign office manager misappropriated the list. Nguyen fired the worker last week but said Sunday that he had offered to rehire her because he came to believe that the letter was accurate and did not violate the law.
Separately, sources have told The Times that a Los Angeles Police Department officer who is close to Nguyen used an alias to order the letter produced and then paid $4,000 for it on his credit card.
Appearing at a news conference Sunday, a defiant Nguyen defended the letter and rejected his party's calls for him to quit the race.
On Monday, Nguyen's lawyer, William Braniff, did not dispute that Nguyen bought the list but said it was bought for legitimate purposes and used to send three or four other campaign mailers, including one in both Spanish and English accusing Sanchez of insufficient support for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One piece quoted a Sgt. Salvador Lujan as saying: "Hispanics are sacrificing themselves for our country in disproportionate numbers.... It is shocking that Rep. Sanchez refuses to support our troops and instead accepts the support of the Arabs."
Braniff said the purpose of requesting a list of voters born outside the United States was merely to identify Spanish-speaking voters and not necessarily to target immigrants.
Others say Nguyen knew of the letter in question. Orange County Republican Party Chairman Scott Baugh has said Nguyen was directly involved with the mailing, calling the mail house that produced the piece and asking that its handling be expedited.
The data firm's assertion that Nguyen bought the mailing list himself raises further questions about his explanation and the extent of his involvement. Gary W. Schons, who is overseeing the probe by the state attorney general's office, declined to respond to questions about the purchase of the mailing list.
"Arrests are not imminent," he said. "There's still quite a bit of investigative activity that must be completed."
Nguyen has also contested the interpretation of the Spanish-language letter, asserting that it did not wrongfully tell recipients that immigrants cannot vote.
The letter, which may have been sent to as many as 14,000 voters, warned in Spanish: "You are advised that if your residence in this country is illegal or if you are an immigrant, to vote in a federal election is a crime that can result in imprisonment or you will be deported for voting without the right to do so."
Braniff said the controversy over the letter stemmed from an inaccurate translation by news media inferring that the word emigrado, or "immigrant," included naturalized U.S. citizens.
The word, Braniff said, referred to immigrants with legal status but not citizenship. Nguyen said the term is used by U.S. immigration agents to ask someone crossing the border whether they are a citizen or "a person who is here legally but with only a green card."
But several people contacted by The Times, including Border Patrol officials and Spanish-language experts, questioned that explanation.
The word "means anyone who comes from elsewhere," said Octavio Pescador, a visiting social science professor at UCLA who is an expert on Latino culture. "It doesn't mean that a person only possesses legal residency. It has no legal connotation."
Border Patrol spokesman James Jacques said he was unaware of the word being used frequently by agents.
"I've never used that word, and I've worked here 10 years," he said. "It's not part of any syllabus I know of. It's not part of any terminology we have."
The letter went on to falsely claim that the state had developed a tracking system that would allow the names of Latino voters to be given to anti-immigrant groups.
Democrats have seized on the incident, and on Monday gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides and others staged a rally in Santa Ana to decry a "culture of intimidation" in the Republican Party.
Angelides, standing on the steps of the old Orange County courthouse, said the letter appeared to take a page from national Republican strategy, and he accused Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of supporting the Minuteman Project border enforcement activists.
"There is a culture of intimidation in the Republican Party," Angelides said, citing voting scandals in Florida and Ohio. "That is why Bush is president today. They do this time after time after time."
Secretary of State Bruce McPherson has said he will notify recipients of the letter, saying it does not accurately reflect their voting rights.