The city of Vernon has launched an investigation of questionable voter registrations, weeks before its first election since a series of government reforms were enacted.
The city, which was nearly disincorporated last year after a series of corruption scandals, has received several complaints about a surge of new registered voters, said John Van de Kamp, the former state attorney general who is acting as Vernon's ethics advisor.
County records show there are nine registered voters — with six different last names — at one small home owned by the city. There are currently 70 people registered to vote in Vernon.
Van de Kamp said he has brought in a group of investigators to interview residents. The city has also notified the L.A. County district attorney's Public Integrity Division.
"You have to be extraordinarily careful in a situation like this," Van de Kamp said. "At this point, the primary question is are these people entitled to vote?"
Competitive campaigns have been extremely rare in Vernon's 106-year history. Most of the city's residents live in homes and apartments owned by the city, and few have ever challenged for seats on the council. Three of the four current council members were appointed to their seats, not elected.
The city has also been plagued by corruption scandals. Three former officials have been indicted since 2006, including a longtime mayor who was convicted of voter fraud.
Last year, Vernon came under fire in Sacramento, where state lawmakers argued it was a fiefdom controlled by a small group of individuals. A bill that would have disbanded the city received strong support before Vernon officials brokered a deal with state Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles) that called for extensive government reforms.
This year, resident Michael Ybarra filed to run against incumbent Councilman Daniel Newmire. Ballots in the vote-by-mail election will be tallied April 10. A separate election for a vacant council seat is scheduled for June.
Van de Kamp declined to say whether investigators were focusing on any specific candidates.
But Marisa Olguin, president of the Vernon Chamber of Commerce, said some of the new voters had ties to Newmire.
"We are following the registered voters, and there's been an increase in numbers at certain houses," she explained in an interview. "We're very concerned with what we're watching."
Newmire strongly denied the allegation, saying he doesn't know any of the newly registered residents. He said the chamber was "crazy" to insinuate that he had brought in new voters.
"I think it's a scare tactic," he said. "I think this is based on trying to intimidate people and make them afraid to vote."