Newspapers are supposed to expose cover-ups, not construct them. But the Los Angeles Times' coverage of the Dornan-Sanchez aftermath has taken on all the markings of a classic cover-up.
On Dec. 27, the Times reported that it had sorted through 64 names to find 19 Latinos who said they registered to vote in the Nov. 5 election before they had formally become U.S. citizens. Based in part on media hype, the district attorney has been searching for whatever illegalities he can find. Hence Tuesday's raid on Hermandad Mexicana Nacional's Orange County office.
How did the Times get tipped off to look at 64 names (all Latino) out of 106,255 voters?
It wouldn't say.
Nor would it say when four Latino leaders asked Times editors and reporters that question in a Jan. 2 meeting at the Times O.C.'s HQ on Sunflower Street in Costa Mesa.
Nor has the Times said since then. Why? Because the behind-the-scenes source is an embarrassing and not very credible one: ex-Congressman Robert K. Dornan. Times reporters admitted as much in private conversations with the Latino leaders.
But publicly, Times management stubbornly denies that Dornan was the source. In a Jan. 10 story defending the paper's aggressive coverage, Leonard Bernstein, managing editor for news, claimed that their reporters "did not use Dornan's data." That's my emphasis, because behind such clever wording is a bit of truth: in order to mask the Dornan connection, it appears, Times reporters backtracked and contacted Dornan's source for the information: the Fair Elections Group.
Karen Saranita, director of the Fair Elections Group, said her organization gave lists of what she considered possible voter-registration irregularities to Dornan, and that some time later, the Times requested the data.
With the organization's information in hand, the Times could spare itself the embarrassment of citing Dornan as its key source.
But that hasn't helped matters much. The Times won't refer to the Fair Elections Group explicitly, preferring to call it (as they did in the Dec. 27 story and in every related story since) a "Torrance-based election group."
The reason for that rhetorical sleight of hand is obvious: the Fair Elections Group has ties every bit as unseemly as Dornan's. Though Times reporters deny it, the Fair Elections Group is a highly partisan source. Indeed, the group's stated mission is identical to Dornan's desperate new cause: to prove that elections are plagued by massive voter fraud.
Nonprofit organizations are usually forthcoming about their inception, their benefactors and their objectives. Rarely does such a group stumble through such basic questions the way Saranita did.
In a telephone interview, Saranita recited a litany of voter-registration oddities from across the nation with ease but said she could not recall the names of any of her organization's big contributors. She didn't have much detail on the group's formative days, either--even though it is only 2 years old--and she would not provide summary information about its budget. (Nevertheless, the Weekly obtained a copy of the group's 1995 budget, which shows Saranita was to be paid $4,000 of its $14,000 monthly expenses.) Unprompted, she volunteered three times that she's a registered Democrat--as if that claim somehow made her more credible.
According to Saranita, the Fair Elections Group's bylaws require it to be nonpartisan, an objective she said they meet by having two Democrats and two Republicans as board members. But even that statement is misleading. The board's two Republicans are Deborah Sutherland, whom Saranita identified as a "California Republican activist," and Herbert F. Boeckmann. Not much is known about Sutherland, but Boeckmann is a major GOP donor to fundamentalist religious and right-wing political causes, a close friend of Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson, and owner of Galpin Ford in the San Fernando Valley. Robertson asked Boeckmann to serve as a ranking member of the televangelist's 1988 presidential campaign. In many cases, Boeckmann's numerous political contributions match those made by Allied Business PAC, an elite group controlled by far-Right, wealthy, Orange County businessmen.
By contrast, the two supposed Democrats on the board are 80-something-year-old Eugene McCarthy, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Minnesota who last ran for president as an Independent; and ex-Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, a former Democrat who sought the Reform Party's presidential nomination in 1996. Quite clearly, no partisan Democrats--and certainly no California Democrats--are on the group's board.
But most troubling were Saranita's adamant denials of her group's connections to former Republican Representative Michael Huffington; Huffington's wife, Arianna; and ex-Reagan administration INS official Harold Ezell, a Newport Beach Republican whom Latino leaders consider one of the nation's leading immigrant-bashers. Ezell has been especially vocal in defending Dornan since Nov. 5.
In 1994, then-freshman Representative Huffington lost a close race to incumbent U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein. Like Dornan, Huffington refused to concede defeat and claimed that massive voter fraud stole the election. Republican operatives from around the state tried to marshal public outrage over the fraud allegations, which (not coincidentally) focused on the Latino community. The charges, identical to the ones Dornan now makes, were found groundless--even by a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
But all was not lost. In the process, Huffington's operatives and Ezell joined forces to create an informal partnership of secretly interlocking groups. Ezell, an architect of Proposition 187--the successful 1994 anti-immigrant initiative--created the Voter Fraud Task Force one week after Huffington's loss. Apparently unable to measure his own disingenuousness, Ezell told reporters that his group was a "nonpartisan citizens' action organization." In fact, veterans of the pro-Prop. 187 movement and conservative Republican politicians composed the task force. If the Times O.C. staff had bothered to check the work of their colleagues in Los Angeles, they would have found a Dec. 19, 1994, article by Bettina Boxall, who detailed the "secretive" links between Huffington's Federal Recount Fund and the Voter Fraud Task Force. At the same time, Republicans were claiming voter fraud in Democrat Jane Harman's 812-vote victory over Susan Brooks in the 36th Congressional District, which is located in coastal Los Angeles County. A group called the Committee for Election Integrity was established by the GOP to drum up support for their charges; according to Boxhall's report, it worked hand in hand with the Voter Fraud Task Force.
The Fair Elections Group had not yet been created, but evidence suggests Saranita was associated with the Voter Fraud Task Force and the Committee for Election Integrity. She repeatedly denied these associations, but Fred Woocher, an election-law attorney in Los Angeles who represented Harman in the voter-fraud allegations, has information to the contrary. He dealt with Saranita in 1994; on his office Rolodex, Woocher says, he still has an old entry listing Saranita with the Committee for Election Integrity--at the same telephone number now used by Saranita's Fair Elections Group.
In January 1995, with the fraud charges going nowhere, Ezell announced that the Voter Fraud Task Force was disbanding and that a new group called the Fair Elections Foundation would replace it. Apparently, "Foundation" was later changed to "Group" or, at least, used interchangeably.
Saranita met four direct questions about her connection to that organization with unequivocal answers: "I can't tell you anything about the Fair Elections Foundation."
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It's odd, then, that the Weekly obtained copies of letters on Fair Elections Foundation letterhead signed by Saranita. It's also odd that Saranita is listed as an official with the Fair Elections Foundation of Costa Mesa in Dirty Little Secrets, a 1996 book that focuses on the seamy side of politics, by Larry J. Sabato and Glenn R. Simpson. Sabato, a professor at the University of Virginia, confirmed the accuracy of the information. Sabato said he did not rely exclusively on Saranita's conclusions on voter fraud because they were "far too speculative."
Another unpublicized but compelling link between Saranita and the Republicans is a man named Dimitri Carapanos. Carapanos, according to a former Republican official, is "very close friends" with the Huffingtons. Carapanos was a member of the Voter Fraud Task Force and treasurer of Huffington's Federal Recount Fund. Ezell admitted to reporters in 1995 that he worked with Carapanos; a Fair Elections Foundation roster from 1995 lists Carapanos as president of the group's board of directors and Saranita as vice president.
Today, the Fair Elections Group lists a second office and telephone number in Walnut Creek. That address and number belong to Carapanos' home, according to the National Telephone Directory. Carapanos' answering service uses the name Fair Elections Foundation.
Note to Times reporters when they get back from staking out Hermandad's offices: one of the addresses the foundation listed in its early days was on South Coast Drive--in the same small office building that houses mega-Republican donor and Dornan-backer George Argyros' businesses. Coincidence? Stay tuned.