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Alleged voter fraud in Little Armenia being investigated

Backers of L.A. City Council candidate Mitch O'Farrell are accused of illegally filling out ballots. The O'Farrell campaign counters that workers for rival John Choi improperly filled out ballots.

May 09, 2013|By Alene Tchekmedyian and Kate Linthicum, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles City Council District 13 candidates Mitch O'Farrell and John Choi greet each other before a debate May 5.
Los Angeles City Council District 13 candidates Mitch O'Farrell… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Prosecutors are investigating allegations of voter fraud in Little Armenia, part of a Los Angeles City Council district where two candidates are waging a bitter battle for an open seat.

According to a spokeswoman for L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, prosecutors are trying to determine whether backers of one candidate illegally filled out mail-in ballots for dozens of voters in the Armenian enclave in East Hollywood. The May 21 election will decide who succeeds Eric Garcetti, who is running for mayor.

In a complaint sent to Lacey's office, an attorney for candidate John Choi accused backers of Choi's opponent, Mitch O'Farrell, of "widespread voter fraud and illegal electioneering activities."

The complaint alleges that O'Farrell campaign workers filled out voters' ballots for their candidate while telling them they were voting for Sam Kbushyan, a candidate of Armenian descent who ran and lost during the primary election.

Kbushyan and many of his former campaign volunteers are now working on behalf of O'Farrell.

The O'Farrell campaign rebuts the allegations, saying it was Choi workers who filled out and took ballots from voters. "These are Choi people who are doing this," O'Farrell spokeswoman Renee Nahum said.

Nahum said the campaign plans to file its own complaint with the district attorney that will include testimony from voters who said they gave their ballots to Choi campaign workers who claimed that they were representing Kbushyan.

The vote-fraud allegations are the latest in a string of accusations to emerge from Little Armenia in recent weeks. In April, a sidewalk altercation between vote canvassers from the two campaigns resulted in a police investigation.

Interviews with several voters listed in the Choi complaint suggest improper activity occurred, although it was unclear who was responsible.

Eighty-two-year-old Raffik Hambardzumyan told the Los Angeles Times that an Armenian-speaking woman came to his house and helped him and his wife fill out their vote-by-mail ballots about a week ago. Hambardzumyan, who doesn't speak English, said the woman told them they were voting for Kbushyan.

He was surprised when a reporter told him Kbushyan wasn't on the ballot. "Why, what happened that he can't get elected?" said Hambardzumyan.

He said he didn't know which campaign the worker represented, and complained about a deluge of election-related calls from multiple groups. "Daily, 4, 5 times they call, different people saying different things," he said.

Both campaigns are looking for votes in Little Armenia, in large part because Kbushyan and his supporters registered nearly 3,000 new voters there in the March 5 primary.

Kbushyan surprised many in the political establishment when he came in third, placing higher than several other contenders with more money and City Hall support.

Galust Khachatryan, 65, said he was recently visited by two campaign workers who didn't help him vote but did take his ballot. He said they were the same workers who appeared at his home during the primary campaign on behalf of Kbushyan, but said he didn't know which campaign they were supporting now.

Star Prasamyan, who directs about two dozen O'Farrell vote canvassers in Little Armenia, said her workers hand out fliers, tell voters about Kbushyan's endorsement of O'Farrell, and then leave.

She accused Choi supporters of lying about Kbushyan's endorsement.

One woman whose name was provided to The Times by the O'Farrell campaign corroborated that claim. In an interview, Nune Begnazaryan said Choi supporters have come to her home on three separate occasions over the last week.

The first and last visits were from non-Armenians who simply handed her fliers with a picture of Choi and his ballot number, "99."

The second visit was from two Armenian women who told her to vote for Choi by punching "99" on the ballot because Kbushyan had endorsed him, she said. She could not recall the names of the visitors.

Choi spokesman Mike Shimpock rebutted those claims, saying his candidate does not want to be associated with Kbushyan. He accused the O'Farrell campaign of "trying to cloud the water" with counterattacks.

alene.tchekmedyian@latimes.com

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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