The Mexican No-Show Show

Bob Dornan, the Times and an 18-Vote 'Scandal'

Days after Loretta Sanchez's Election Day victory over Bob Dornan in Orange County's 46th Congressional District, the Times O.C. featured staff writer Nancy Cleeland's "O.C. Latinos' turnout falls short of hopes." The front-page story, written when Sanchez trailed Dornan by a mere 233 votes, dismissed the impact of the Latino vote.

But a month later, the Times rewrote history when Cleeland and fellow Times reporter Peter Warren argued that "Latino power pushed Sanchez past Dornan." Two weeks after that, on Dec. 19, the Times suddenly told its readers that Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a Santa Ana-based immigrant-rights organization, played a key role in the Sanchez victory. A week later, on Dec. 27, the Times dropped the bomb: led by Warren and Cleeland, a team of Times reporters found 18 legal aliens who claimed to have voted in the 46th Congressional District--with Hermandad's help.

Under ordinary circumstances, news that two-ten-thousandths of 1 percent of all votes cast in a race were questionable would be no news at all. Happens all the time. But the 46th Congressional District race involved Dornan, and suddenly, the 18 voters--Latinos all--began to look like the tip of an election-fraud iceberg.

The Times had moved at warp speed--from Nov. 7 to Dec. 27, with no stops to point out the irony--from a story that decried Latino apathy to a story that decried excessive Latino enthusiasm. Call it the Times' Mexican no-show show--and chalk it up to Dornan's influence. According to multiple sources, between Nov. 7 and Dec. 7, Dornan privately told the Times that he suspected that Hermandad and the group's director, Nativo Lopez, caused his loss.

Setting up Hermandad for the big fall took the Times just three days. On Dec. 5, the Times reported that Secretary of State Bill Jones would look into Dornan's allegation that Hermandad had persuaded noncitizens to vote. On Dec. 6, the Times reported that the district attorney's office was going to investigate the complaint. Suddenly, it seemed that there were Mexicans everywhere. And so, on Dec. 7, we came 180 degrees with Cleeland and Warren's piece trumpeting the electoral power of Orange County's Latinos.

By Dec. 27, the Times seemed to have concluded that Latino power was sinister. According to the paper, 18 legal immigrants from Mexico now living in Orange County admitted they took citizenship classes at Hermandad and passed government immigration tests, but they had not taken the ceremonial oath of allegiance to the United States before voting in the November election. If this occurred, then federal law was--at least unintentionally--violated. For Dornan and his angry supporters, such news rejuvenated their cries of foul, but no one--not Dornan, not paid investigators, not suspicious and capable Times reporters, not the Republican-controlled Orange County Registrar of Voters' office--has substantiated claims of intentional, widespread voter fraud, the kind necessary to undermine the legitimacy of Sanchez's 984-vote victory or for the U.S. House of Representatives to set aside the official results and declare Dornan victorious.

That hasn't stopped the ex-congressman-for-life. Dornan suggests that his defeat at Sanchez's hands is itself "prima facie" (his words) of electoral "monkey business" (also his words), evidence of a sinister election conspiracy orchestrated by sneaky, power-hungry Latinos. Dornan has not yet detailed how homosexuals, women, Jews, gun-control advocates, pornographers, union members, environmentalists, Communists, Hollywood directors, errant nuns and country-club Republicans fit into the plot. But he will.

For now, we have the Mexicans--and a few others. Dornan claims he can prove 3,500 "bad" votes. Based on pronouncements by Dornan's attorney William Hart in late December, Dornan's troops have identified 100 people who voted twice, 150 who claimed business addresses as their official residences (more on this later), and two underage individuals who voted. Add to that the 18 noncitizens connected to Hermandad, and we have a total of 270 possibly invalid votes out of the 106,255 cast, or three one-thousandths of 1 percent. For some reason, the Times failed to make that point in its Dec. 27 story.

That probably has less to do with racism at the Times than with its reporters' natural desire to expose fraud. But in this case, the facts may be irrelevant. According to election experts, anecdotal evidence of voter-registration inconsistencies or even isolated cases of voter fraud are commonplace in almost every election throughout the nation, including all of Dornan's previous victories. Irregularities, it should go without saying, don't necessarily mean fraud--or, of course, that all questionable votes went to one candidate.

Lost in the ambition of its reporters to find a scandal is the context of the story. It's hard to believe, for example, that the Times thinks it is justified in withholding the fact that Dornan himself has committed some of the same voter-registration fraud he now accuses others of performing. But they did. We reported three weeks ago that Dornan lied twice (falsely claiming he lived in Orange County when he resided in Los Angeles, and offering a Buena Park office building as his residential address) on his 1984 official registration form. His wife, Sallie, did the same. Readers of the Times, or for that matter The Orange County Register, know none of this. Ironically, the same man--District Attorney Michael Capizzi--who declined to open a criminal case against fellow Republican Dornan for his registration fudging is now pursuing Democrats for the same problems, and he's doing so at Dornan's urging.

Nor has the Times examined another irony: on Dec. 13, the Times reported that Capizzi was searching to "see what kind of financial support" he could muster among GOP donors for his expected run for the state attorney general's job. At the same time, his office opened an inquiry into Sanchez's election victory. Nice timing, that.

In their search for scandal, Times reporters are skipping the subtleties. An increasing number of Latino community leaders believe the goal at the Times is to manufacture a solid link between Sanchez's win and Hermandad's voter-registration troubles. If you need more evidence, consider this: according to sources at Hermandad's Dec. 19 Christmas party, Cleeland tried unsuccessfully to entice Lopez and Sanchez--who are distant acquaintances and not ideological soul mates--to pose arm in arm for a Times photographer. These same sources say Cleeland became upset when Lopez, who was apparently aware of how the Times would use the shot, declined. Cleeland told the Weekly that she was not upset but rather was puzzled about the photo incident.

"We certainly had no agenda," she said. "But when we began hearing that noncitizens were registering to vote there, we could not ignore it."

Not everyone agrees.

"The Times is trying to prove we were in cahoots with Hermandad, and we weren't," said Sanchez. "The reality is that I did not have their vocal support in the election."

Hermandad is a political power, one that no doubt worries the Right. But if the Times continues to blindly follow Dornan's accusations to illogical conclusions, Hermandad may indeed be weakened. That would delight the Republican establishment, of course. It would also allow Cleeland, following some future Election Day, to recycle her Nov. 7 article on the political impotence of the Latino community.

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