By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
You didn't read it in our local daily newspapers, but a Santa Ana police officer called the bomb squad to Hermandad Mexicana Nacional's office on a Saturday morning in late January. Someone had secretly placed a plainly wrapped, suspicious-looking package on a newspaper stand in the immigrant group's office lobby. The package, which had two uncanceled 32-cent James Dean stamps in the upper-right corner, was addressed to Hermandad director Nativo Lopez, the man Republicans say robbed Robert Dornan of his congressional seat in last November's election by enticing noncitizens to vote. The return address named an apparently nonexistent group with the unfortunate ring of a 1950s-style racist association: the Santa Ana Citizens Committee. The letter that accompanied the package carried a drawing of an inverted American flag and a typed message that read, "Congratulations, Nativo Lopez, you've joined the Benedict Arnold Club." After the building was evacuated, on-site x-rays by the bomb squad found the package's content to be a dead fish--a Mafia-esque signal that the recipient is targeted for murder.
Welcome to politics, Orange County style. Democrat Loretta Sanchez is in, Dornan is out, and the Republican establishment--which controls every other congressional seat in the county--is in an uproar. Not since the party of Lincoln hired poll guards to intimidate Latino citizens into not voting in 1988 has a local political story sparked so much emotion. Like the anticlimatic but troubling discovery of a fish rather than a bomb, however, all is not as it appears in the story of an alleged plot by Latinos to topple Dornan. The media hype--driven single-handedly by the Los Angeles Times--has certainly been intense. But closer inspection reveals overblown events, manipulated facts and distorted intentions--all for cheap political purposes--and Republicans, who are screaming the loudest about wrongdoing, could not withstand the scrutiny aimed at Lopez, Hermandad and the Latino community.
Orange County was ground zero for Republicans in 1996. First, they wanted to retain their seats in two overlapping, heavily Democratic districts: Dornan's 46th Congressional District and Jim Morrissey's 69th Assembly District. More important, if Bob Dole was going to have any chance of taking California in the presidential campaign, he needed a decisive victory here to offset less conservative voters in Los Angeles and San Francisco. As a result, anxious Republicans dumped more than $1 million into local campaign efforts, part of which was designated to boost the party's registration numbers.
It takes troops to register voters. Most people you see passing out registration cards at card tables outside post offices or grocery stores are paid by political parties or special-interest groups. Bounty hunters, as they are called, receive fees ranging from $1 to $6--and in rare instances as much as $10--for each registration. Of course, organizations that hire bounty hunters pay only for the registration of supporters. Those who perform this seasonal work are often retired, college students, unemployed, political activists or, in some cases, grifters. It's an easy way to earn as much as $500 a day, but it's also an easy way to commit fraud. Voter registration works on an honor system with minimal oversight. If tempted--and there's plenty of temptation--these bounty hunters have both motive (money) and opportunity (most keep the registration cards until they are given to the registrar of voters) to falsify registrations.
Gregory S. Cochran has worked as a bounty hunter for Southern California Republicans for 16 years. He considers himself an expert on voter registration, and he says he registered 20 percent of the more than 300,000 new Republicans statewide in 1995-96. Although most people involved in voter registration are honest, he says, fraud has become prevalent in recent years and party officials have rebuffed his complaints.
"The Republican Party doesn't care about premium legitimate [voter] cards; they just want the numbers, even if they are bogus," Cochran said. "I've seen cases where bounty hunters copied names out of telephone books and off tombstones in a cemetery and turned them in as Republican voters."
Cochran laughed when he heard the hoopla surrounding the Times' groundbreaking Dec. 27 report that 19 noncitizens may have registered to vote.
"I thought to myself, 'Dornan better hope nobody looks at the fraud that probably took place for him,'" Cochran said. "Even if Hermandad did register 19 or 50 or even 100 illegally, that's a joke compared to what goes on on the Republican side. I know; I've seen the fraud firsthand."
And so it seems. While the Times and The Orange County Register have focused exclusively on Hermandad, the Weekly investigated Republican registration activities for Dornan and Morrissey. The results weren't pretty. A selective sampling of about 1,000 of the 6,600 Republican registrations filed during the three months preceding the election found what Cochran later described as "several hundred" cases of probable Republican voter fraud.
Included in the Weekly's findings were 70 people whose identities or existence are in doubt because their registrations contained patently false information; 45 altered registrations, including 10 individuals registered as Republicans who aren't; and two noncitizens--both Vietnamese--who registered. More than 100 additional registrations were "probably bogus" because a person registered on the last possible day yet didn't vote, and listed no verifiable telephone number or a disconnected one--all red flags for fraud, according to Cochran. Other registrations were downright laughable, containing false addresses and phone numbers that dead-ended at a massage parlor, a law firm, a Mexican restaurant, a police department and two motel rooms.