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.

An Anaheim woman who registered outside a Wal-Mart described herself as a lifelong Democrat and was adamant that her voter-registration affidavit had been altered. "I guarantee you that I would never register as a Republican," she said. "Somebody must be playing games with it." Because the registrar requires anyone who checks out blank registration affidavits in bulk to identify themselves, it was easy to trace this person's card to a representative of the local GOP.

Another woman, who belongs to no party, said the person who registered her outside a grocery store insisted it was okay to leave the party-preference box blank. And that's how she left it. Unbeknownst to her, the affidavit showed up at the registrar's office with a forged check in the Republican box. (No wonder the GOP has a 238,170 county registration advantage over Democrats.)

Although the Orange County Registrar of Voters office cooperated with both the Times' and Register's efforts to inspect voter-registration affidavits filed by Democrats connected to Hermandad, it wasn't as helpful in our effort to look at Republican voter files connected to Dornan and Morrissey. Initially refusing any access to official registration cards, the registrar's office eventually relented but only provided redacted second-generation copies. Nevertheless, our search proved a gold mine. Forty-five of the 59 cards reviewed appeared to be fraudulent, according to Cochran. Party preference, dates or other relevant information had been visibly tampered with on the cards. Registration bounty hunters who had obviously completed sections of the affidavits failed to identify themselves on cards as required by law. Other Republican registrations appear blatantly fraudulent, as sequentially numbered affidavits were completed and signed by the same hand. Theoretically, someone could vote multiple times using these fake Republican registrations.

"What you've found is the tip of the iceberg," Cochran said. "I would bet there's a boatload of garbage in Orange County."

Both Cochran and Sam Clauder, a bounty hunter who lives in Orange County, say they have complained to authorities, including the secretary of state, the registrar of voters and area district attorneys.

"I've told [the DA] what's going on and given them evidence of fraud in the past, but they've just dropped it," Clauder said. He says he has evidence of bounty hunters tearing up registrations they wouldn't be paid for, such as those for another party. Neither the Orange County registrar of voters nor the district attorney's office returned repeated phone calls.

Questionable Republican voter registration efforts also have broader implications. Lost in the media feeding frenzy over Hermandad is how GOP wrongdoing may have aided Dornan and Morrissey, who defeated Democrat Lou Correa by just 93 votes out of 53,000 cast in an overwhelmingly Democratic Assembly district. Of course, first the powers that be--including the Times--would have to open their eyes and look, but that hasn't happened in four months. For some reason, evidence of Republican fraud has been steadfastly ignored--quite a remarkable omission considering the exhaustive scrutiny into Hermandad.

On the night of Nov. 5, Congressman Dornan was expected to share a private suite on the second floor of the Westin Hotel in Costa Mesa with fellow Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher, Ed Royce and Chris Cox, but he didn't. While his fellow Orange County Republicans enjoyed an election-night blowout in the hotel's grand ballroom, Dornan faced the first gut-wrenchingly tight race of his 23-year political career. He rented his own room.

As the night wore on and it became clear that Sanchez might win a stunning upset, media interest--including reporters from all seven Los Angeles television stations--focused on Dornan. Everybody wanted an interview. But instead of remaining accessible in the ballroom, the nine-term congressman spent much of the night secluded, watching TV news updates with his family. Dornan--a longtime vociferous critic of the media in general and Times reporters in particular--gave only one reporter access to his inner sanctum that night: Peter Warren of the Times O.C.

Experienced Dornan watchers know he rarely gives anything without taking. Reporters who write anything less than pro-Dornan articles invite his wrath. (Last year, he banned me from a press conference and accused me--as he's routinely done to his critics--of committing assorted crimes.) But Dornan--who could not be reached for comment--obviously felt comfortable with Warren, a cagey veteran political reporter. Their relationship is significant because the two men, working in conjunction after the election, rocked the political world with the controversial charge that Latinos stole the election for Sanchez. The truth, however, is not what Dornan and his newfound friends at the Times want the public to believe. Yes, noncitizens did vote--a serious issue deserving investigation and exposure. But no credible evidence has emerged that proves there was a conspiracy--except perhaps for the one perpetrated by the unholy union of a bitter, defeated politician and a scandal-hungry newspaper.

From the beginning, this has been a story about numbers. Dornan's only chance to overturn Sanchez's 984-vote win has been to allege massive Democratic voter fraud. His opening, widely publicized shots involved charges that 150 people illegally registered from business addresses, 100 voted twice, and there was a 2,000-vote discrepancy in Registrar Rosalyn Lever's compilations. (Dornan would later name Lever--a Republican--part of the Latino conspiracy after she proved the claims baseless. The Times downplayed her devastating findings in a Jan. 22 article with the misleading headline: "Registrar details irregularities.")

Dornan also offered a wild, implausible series of miniconspiracies (for example, unnamed people driving Santa Ana streets on election night stuffing ballot boxes, or sneaky apartment-building managers surreptitiously voting for all residents) that didn't total very many votes. Desperate to find a large block of votes he could challenge as illegal, Dornan eventually pointed an accusatory finger at Hermandad, which had registered more voters than his election deficit. And that is when Warren and the Times stepped in--with both feet. (The Register has remained relatively calm, exhibiting a healthy skepticism of Dornan's musings.) Although an expensive official re-count didn't help Dornan's cause, the Times' Dec. 27 report about a handful of noncitizen voters made headlines across the country and gave new life to Dornan's conspiracy theories. With the Times article published, the ex-congressman said on ABC's Politically Incorrect that he could sit back and watch others prove his charges.

Fans of investigative journalism expect mainstream newspapers to report all the major relevant facts, even ones that diminish a hot story's sensationalism. But ever since Dornan cried foul in November, the Times has positioned itself as an advocate of the ex-congressman's self-serving claims rather than a neutral arbiter of fact. (The Weekly previously reported that the Times attempted to manufacture a nonexistent personal link between Sanchez and Lopez by trying to entice them to pose arm-in-arm before the paper made its allegations. There is no evidence tying Sanchez to events at Hermandad.) And therein lies the dilemma. Since the paper can only save face if the public believes there was an election-stealing conspiracy, can it accurately report the story? It can't, and it hasn't.

The Times has offered no less than seven different versions of its investigation into Hermandad. On Dec. 27, it reported, "Nineteen people interviewed by the Times acknowledge that they voted [my emphasis] though they had not completed the naturalization process." As if there is no distinction between the terms "registering" and "voting" (one has a direct impact on an election's outcome; the other doesn't), it wrote on Dec. 28 that "19 noncitizens registered [my emphasis]." On the 29th, the number who registered was suddenly "at least" 19. By Feb. 1, the paper was backtracking on all its numbers. On that date, the Times tried to cleverly re-characterize its Dec. 27 story, falsely claiming its original account was that "nearly 20 . . . either registered or voted [my emphasis] before being sworn in" as citizens. Twenty-nine paragraphs later, it contradicted itself once more, writing that it had found 19 who registered. In the next sentence, the Times uncorked the granddaddy of all corrections by revealing the number was never 19.

"In fact, the number is 18," it offered without explanation. Then it conceded that the Dec. 27 article "also did not make clear that three of the 18" became citizens before the election. So what was the number? Nineteen? Eighteen? Fifteen? By Feb. 12, the paper had safely reduced the number to "more than a dozen." Nothing like precision. Startlingly, the Times waited 48 days to publicly admit its error--and then buried it in the 30th paragraph of a story.

One of the Times' biggest sins has been insinuating that the number of noncitizen voters was staggering--certainly enough to overturn the Dornan-Sanchez results. (One memorably absurd headline in early February was "Known number of suspect O.C. votes multiplies"--my emphasis.) To boost the number from 19 to 220 and later to 407, Warren and crew grabbed data from incongruent lists--voters registered by Hermandad in the 46th District, voters registered by Hermandad countywide, immigrants who registered but were citizens by Election Day--and continually switched or expanded the definition of fraud without adequately informing readers.

No matter how many ways Dornan and the Times manipulate the voter records, they will never legitimately come close to the number of votes needed to overturn the election, 984. Consider this indisputable fact: even if every vote associated with Hermandad and the 46th Congressional District contest were tossed out--519 votes--Dornan would still lose by 465 votes. Poof. So much for Dornan. So much for the Times' scandal. And with all due respect, the U.S. House subcommittee investigating this election at the ex-congressman's insistence can save their time and a lot of taxpayer funds if they ignore hyperbolic media reports and focus on simple math and common sense.

Newt Gingrich should love Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. When the House speaker talks of community-based charitable institutions replacing government in aiding society's poorest, he's talking about groups like Hermandad. In Santa Ana, a block away from the county government that has all but abandoned them, more than 330 immigrants a day walk through Hermandad's doors seeking assistance. The group--which also has offices in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.--is the largest private provider of services to Latino immigrants in the country. In spite of the racist rhetoric from some Republican quarters, an overwhelming majority of these immigrants are hard-working people desperately trying to succeed in this country. They work the long, hard jobs nobody else will perform; live in or near abject poverty; and endure the insults of a suspicious white majority. Despite immigrants' plight, on any given day, Hermandad's offices resembled a family reunion more than a sterile government bureaucracy. That changed when the Times started pounding the organization in December. What was once a warm, lighthearted atmosphere has become noticeably tenser. It's not uncommon to see reporters and news camera crews camped in the parking lot, hovering as if they are at a crime scene. The absurdity of the situation was evident when one reporter asked Lopez if he had any connections to Russian communists. Employees have been subjected to dozens of telephoned and written death threats, typified by:

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?

"Rather than work with us, from the start, everyone assumed we were guilty," Lopez said.

Maybe not everyone. Latino leaders say support for Hermandad within their community has never been stronger.

"People in our community realize that the aggressive attacks on Hermandad are just an extension of what has been happening to us for years," said Amin David, head of the Santa Ana-based group Los Amigos of Orange County. "We're always the scapegoats for the power structure."

But the face of that power structure is destined to change. Latino leaders estimate that an additional 60,000 to 80,000 legal Latino residents will become citizens in Orange County by the year 2000. And it will be tougher and tougher for right-wing politicians like Dornan to get into office. These changes will cause a ripple across California. No longer will statewide GOP candidates be able to rely on a solid Republican voting block from Orange County.

"That's why the Republicans want to lop off Hermandad's head now," Lopez said. "They know the change is coming, and they don't want to face it. But there is nothing they can do. With or without Hermandad, it's going to happen."

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