A year ago this month, then-Congressman Bob Dornan and reporter Peter Warren of the Orange County edition of the Los Angeles Times called my boss, Will Swaim, to tell him that my critical coverage of their "massive voter-fraud conspiracy" would bring down the Weekly. Both empathetically described to Swaim the embarrassment I guaranteed the paper when indictments were issued and Loretta Sanchez's victory was overturned by Congress. Swaim didn't buy any of it, and we remained alone in the publishing world, poking hole after hole into the highly publicized sham. So here we are--64 weeks and millions of tax dollars into the "scandal"--and this week, a Republican-controlled House subcommittee refused to overturn Sanchez's 984-vote Democratic win in November 1996. Despite partisan rhetoric, congressional Republicans effectively (or perhaps more accurately, reluctantly) now admit that the Dornan/Times conspiracy theory was, at best, conjecture, and, at worst, an outrageous sloppy lie.
Of course, the congressional decision was no surprise. A Republican district attorney (Mike Capizzi) and a Republican secretary of state (Bill Jones) raided a Latino organization, interrogated hundreds of people, inspected tens of thousand of records, but--as we announced in December--could not even convince an Orange County grand jury dominated by elderly, conservative white men to issue a single indictment. Capizzi and Jones did, however, demonstrate their finely honed political skills by regularly leaking inflammatory, self-serving half-truths to eager-to-believe reporters, especially Warren. All that seemed to matter was that Dornan voiced suspicions and that those suspicions jibed with a cynical Republican campaign strategy--slowing the development of Latino political power in Orange County--and with the Times OC's thirst for rare national attention.
The weirdest part of this very weird scandal was how easy it was to disprove Dornan's accusations from Day One. Yet, without hesitation, the Times mirrored Dornan by unapologetically using the loaded word "fraud" in every article on the story. In a matter of hours back in December 1996, we reviewed the same registration and voting records the Times used to tarnish Sanchez's victory with conspiracy questions. As a result, we wrote one year ago: "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. Consider this indisputable fact: even if every vote associated with Hermandad Mexicana Nacional [the villain in the Dornan/Times tale] and the 46th Congressional District 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 . . . can save their time and a lot of taxpayer funds if they ignore hyperbolic media reports and focus on simple math and common sense."
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Unaccustomed to newspapers that don't shake when he speaks, Dornan responded by preposterously claiming that I once worked as a male hustler (I should be so lucky). When that didn't stop my reporting, he named me a key conspirator in his fraud game and sent over a subpoena--a move his embarrassed congressional allies later quietly killed. Nor did Warren and the Times appreciate that a "lesser publication" questioned their spin on the Dornan affair. Last spring, Times OC editor Bill Nottingham abandoned all pretense of neutrality to declare in a radio interview that Latinos and Hermandad were "guilty" and that the Weekly had manufactured evidence to discredit the conspiracy they had a hand in fabricating. Alas, there was no conspiracy, except for the one perpetuated by the unholy alliance of a bitter, defeated politician and a scandal-hungry newspaper. It is safe now for even the faintest of hearts to publicly acknowledge The Lie. There were no indictments. No trials. No convictions. No overturned election. Sanchez won legitimately.
Dornan remains unsurprisingly defiant, probably to keep his profitable right-wing-nut mailing list "energized." (As Federal Election Commission disclosure reports show, Dornan family members make money from the contributions.) When he learned that his fellow Republicans couldn't continue the ruse any longer, Dornan put his best--if laughable--spin on it. He said he feels "vindicated." Which got me to thinking: Does Warren feel the same way? I decided to call the Times OC newsroom. "Hey, Peter, do you feel vindicated like Dornan?"Silence. Thirty seconds later, I asked, "Should I ask a different question?"Silence. "Does the outcome cause you to re-evaluate your reporting on this story?"
In the end, it wasn't the Weekly that was embarrassed.