To Hermandis [sic] Mexican Non-American National, you cowards and activists are crazy and you can't use stupid adjectives like "scare" or "squeeze people." You are totally socialists and should bee run out of town. Call it like it is, you are guilty and offer poor unsubstantiated excuses. All Mexicans do this. Even the dumber ones do this. You committed fraud--Give up! You can't get away with this by hollering murder all the time. [signed] Mato en gente [translation: I kill people].

Not all the hostility has been from the grassroots. Dornan's complaints and the Times' trumped-up spin have sparked high-profile official probes by the Orange County district attorney, the California secretary of state, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and the U.S. House of Representatives. In mid-January, police and prosecutors raided Hermandad and hauled off computers and files, looking for evidence to support Dornan's contentions.

Despite his calm demeanor, Nativo Lopez is in the center of the storm. Although the father of three and a fifth-generation American believes District Attorney Michael Capizzi has every intention of securing grand-jury indictments in the case, he remains resolute in proclaiming his innocence. (The controversy comes at a particularly difficult time for Lopez; his wife, Maria Rosa, was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease last year and is undergoing medical treatment in Mexico.) Outside of his family, Lopez said his biggest concern is for the institution he's helped build since 1972 and for the tens of thousands of people who rely on it. He says the Times has either downplayed or omitted several important exculpatory facts, including that some people who registered at Hermandad registered Republican and voted for Dornan; that he and Dornan maintained a courteous professional relationship for more than a decade; and that the group took several steps--some more effective than others--to keep pending citizens from voting. Warren and the Times didn't tell their readers, but Hermandad reported to the registrar's office in September--months before the controversy--that its voter application forms carried the following disclaimer: "If you registered to vote . . . please pass this registration form to a U.S. citizen who is not registered to vote."

"Before thinking about what they were writing, the Los Angeles Times smeared the good name of Hermandad and harmed our community," said Lopez, who has launched a nationwide boycott against the paper, a move endorsed by Orange County's powerful Central Labor Council. "In story after story, they have attempted to paint our actions as an organized, systematic effort to commit crimes. It's just not true. In the end, everyone will know that."

So what did happen?

Unfortunately, some details remain murky. Lopez and Hermandad attorney Mark Rosen cited the pending criminal probes and declined repeated requests to share the specific results of their internal investigation. Both, however, adamently insist the mistakes that led to noncitizens voting were unintentional.

Although Lopez would not finger any individual, sources associated with Hermandad said that without their knowledge one employee--who simultaneously performed five jobs for the group--was responsible for voter-registration applications being distributed to individuals who had passed both the INS' written test and interview necessary for naturalization. These sources said the employee may have believed it was okay for pending citizens to register as long as they became citizens before voting. (If this was his rationale, it wasn't so far-fetched: by law, 17-year-olds can register before their 18th birthdays.) At least part of the questionable registering occured in the presence of INS agents who did nothing to bring the matter to Lopez's attention. The employee, who is now in Mexico and could not be reached for comment, fears he will not be treated fairly by Orange County prosecutors anxious for headline-grabbing criminal convictions, according to a source.

"It was nothing more than a boneheaded mistake by an employee who didn't know what he was doing was wrong," a source said. "If this person knew he was committing a crime by handing out registration cards, would he have done it repeatedly in front of INS agents who were standing right there? No."

Lopez said he became aware of the issue in late October after he and his staff received numerous calls from clients about their voting eligibility. "We told them everyone had to be a U.S. citizen to vote in the election," he said. However, he conceded some noncitizens voted.

Hermandad officials said they can't be sure of the extent of the problem because their records were confiscated in the raid. Nevertheless, they said it is conceivable that as many as 200 noncitizen students may have registered to vote, with about half of them voting in the Dornan-Sanchez race. Lopez points out that if his organization had focused on increasing voter-registration numbers, they would have done better than just 1,322 in a 24-month period. "You must remember, 10,000 people come to Hermandad every month," he said. "This doesn't help the Times story, but we weren't all that interested in registration. Our energies were focused on citizen participation and voter turnout."

Lopez has a question of his own for the INS, the registrar and the secretary of state: If all three agencies were aware of problems with noncitizens registering to vote (and public records establish they were), didn't the agencies have an obligation to bring the matter to Hermandad's attention before the election?

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