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JEFFREY KAYE: Last November, Democrat Loretta Sanchez celebrated her election to Congress. She now represents California’s 46th Congressional District but as she goes about her legislative duties a shadow hangs over her victory. Sanchez’ election is the subject of three ongoing investigations–one by Congress, two by California officials. The man she unseated by 984 votes is Republican Robert K. Dornan. The 18-year congressional veteran is convinced the election was stolen.
REP. ROBERT K. DORNAN: You bet I want to go back–as a conscience and as a firebrand!
JEFFREY KAYE: Dornan believe’s there’s enough evidence of voter fraud for him to return to Washington. Michael Schroeder, Dornan’s lawyer, is also state chair of the California Republican Party.
MICHAEL SCHROEDER: Now the actual hard evidence itself is located over here in a series of boxes.
JEFFREY KAYE: Schroeder contends hundreds of immigrants illegally registered to vote before they became citizens. At the center of the controversy is Hermandad Mexicana Nacional–Spanish for National Mexican Alliance, a 46-year-old immigrant service organization.
MICHAEL SCHROEDER: There’s no question there was a conspiracy. It was conducted by the Hermandad Mexicana Nacional. The DA and the grand jury are currently meeting right now to decide what needs to be done in a criminal context. But what was going on was Hermandad Mexicana was registering people in their classes. These were classes that people were taking to learn how to take the citizenship test so that they could become citizens of this country.
WOMAN: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States.
JEFFREY KAYE: Hermandad Mexicana Nacional provides citizenship training, English classes, and vocational programs, besides registering . Its prominence in this conflict reflects a changing political reality in Orange County’s 46th District. The home of Disneyland was once a white Republican bastion–no more. Immigrants have changed the area’s character. The population is 12 percent Asian, 50 percent Latino. When Sanchez, a former Republican, makes weekend trips to the district her bilingual skills are essential.
Sanchez supporters see her defeat of Dornan as a watershed event for Latinos. But Dornan suggests a quest for political power included voter fraud. His complaint is under investigation by the House Oversight Committee, which could recommend the election be overturned. A committee task force, chaired by Michigan Republican Vernon Ehlers, has been comparing voter records with files of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
JEFFREY KAYE: Have you found enough votes to overturn this election?
REP. VERNON EHLERS: I cannot tell you that. That is confidential information We’re looking through them one by one There are a few numbers that are out there that are public information.
JEFFREY KAYE: Ehlers says his task force has verified reports by California officials that some 300 voters registered to vote before they were citizens.
REP. VERNON EHLERS: So these are then fraudulent votes. In addition to that, the registrar of elections in Orange County has discovered a 124 improper absentee ballots, and so that brings you up to about 425. Those are publicly known. We are investigating the match between the INS records and the voter record. We’re doing that very painstakingly and carefully.
JEFFREY KAYE: The lengthy and inconclusive congressional investigation has spurred partisan debate. Democrats, wearing orange ribbons in support of the Orange County representative, have called on the committee to either produce evidence of wrongdoing, or end its investigation. Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer is the lone Democrat on the task force investigating the election.
REP. STENY HOYER, (D) Maryland: Our figures, our analysis doesn’t show that they’re even close to showing that Loretta Sanchez has not won this election pretty handily. And further, more my speculation is if they were close, if they thought they had the information, they would announce it. They would put it on the table. But they haven’t done that.
JEFFREY KAYE: Sanchez says the continuing investigations are an effort to taint her candidacy for re-election.
LORETTA SANCHEZ: There’s been no evidence found after 11 months of investigation. There are still just allegations out there. And I believe it’s going on because the Republicans would like to weaken me for my 1998 re-election campaign.
JEFFREY KAYE: Dornan contends the task force has enough evidence to return him to office but that the GOP-led committee wants to be sure of the facts.
DORNAN: They want a bullet-proof number with a buffer of a thousand or two thousand because they don’t want any mistakes, because the liberal dominant media will say we found two people, it’s a mistake, therefore, the whole thing is a lie.
JEFFREY KAYE: Why is this investigation taking so long?
REP. VERNON EHLERS: First of all, it’s not taking so long. If you look at the history of these cases, they’re very complex, just as court cases are. You have to allow the contestant time to prepare the case. In this particular case the biggest problem has been that the subpoenas have not been responded to, and we do not have all the information we need to make a decision.
JEFFREY KAYE: Hermandad officials have refused to comply with a subpoena to produce records. They are challenging the summons in court. Last month, the House of Representatives voted to demand that criminal charges be filed against Hermandad. The resolution prompted spirited debate on the House floor.
SPOKESMAN: — has not responded to and we do not have all the information we need to make a decision.
JEFFREY KAYE: Hermandad officials refused to comply with a subpoena to produce records. They’re challenging the summit in court. Last month, the House of Representatives voted to demand that criminal charges be filed against Hermandad. The resolution prompted spirit debate on the House floor.
REP. ROBERT MENENDEZ: What must women and Hispanic Americans have been thinking about when their votes on the verge of being nullified by Republicans in this House? If there is no justice in this case, there will be no peace in this House.
REP. HENRY BONILLA: The implication among those who cry racism is one that says if a burglar broke into their home, that somehow you should have a different standard if the person is of a different color or ethnic background. How dumb an idea can that be? We are talking about people who are possibly implicated in crimes here. The Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, or whatever they call themselves, is one of the most corrupt organizations that has ever existed that is receiving federal money.
JEFFREY KAYE: Nativo Lopez is executive director of Hermandad Mexicana, which is funded by the government, as well as by fees from members. Lopez says he expects to be indicted for voter fraud. He contends Republican are trying to destroy the organization because of its success in signing up new citizens.
NATIVO LOPEZ: At the point that the allegations first were made in December this organization was processing close to 2,000 new citizens a month. And no other organization in this county was producing such numbers. You don’t have to be a mathematician to know that a year hence, that would be twenty-four, thirty thousand new citizens–Hispanic new citizens with the vote.
JEFFREY KAYE: And you believe Republicans felt that that was threatening
NATIVO LOPEZ: Absolutely. It was absolutely threatening because they read the numbers, they study the statistics better than anyone, and they know the inclination of these new citizens because they have not been embraced by the Republican Party.
REP. VERNON EHLERS: I think that’s totally absurd. There’s no basis for that. I happen to be a scientist. I deal in facts. I’m looking at the facts of this case. This has racist, sexist aspects, I think, are totally irrelevant to our investigation, and frankly, I’m insulted by it because no one’s ever called me a racist that frequently until this point.
JEFFREY KAYE: Using lists of allegedly illegal voters Sanchez’s lawyers conducted their own investigation.
CONSEULO SMITH: They gave me a list of people.
JEFFREY KAYE: One investigator, Consuelo Smith, says she visited voters wrongly identified on the list as non-citizens. Among them were Sonia Antunez. She was naturalized in 1984. And Catalina Peralta, who became a citizen in 1994.
JEFFREY KAYE: And this flag, when did you use this flag? Peralta showed us the flag she waved at her naturalization ceremony. But Smith said her investigation did turn up voters who registered before they became citizens.
CONSEULO SMITH: I find few people that they registered like a week before they went to the swear-in ceremony. I don’t have that number but it was a few of them.
JEFFREY KAYE: Loretta Sanchez has told the House Committee her staff found 18 people who registered before they were eligible. And Lopez of Hermandad Mexicana admits his group registered non-citizens.
NATIVO LOPEZ: That was just a mistake. That was absolutely nothing that was pursued or programmed or propounded as a policy of the organization, absolutely not.
JEFFREY KAYE: Lopez says he can’t tell how many ineligible voters were registered because the district attorney confiscated all his records.
JEFFREY KAYE: Was it over a thousand? Was it less than a hundred? Do you have any idea at all?
NATIVO LOPEZ: No, we do not.
JEFFREY KAYE: None.
NATIVO LOPEZ: No, we do not.
JEFFREY KAYE: California’s secretary of state, Republican Bill Jones says the issue of intent is a crucial one. Jones says he is trying to find out whether anyone knowingly registered non-citizens to vote.
BILL JONES, CALIFORNIA’S SEC. OF STATE: We are seeking to deal with the question not of who sits in the House, because that’s not for us to determine, but whether or not there was an intent to defraud in the case of the individuals there who either voted or participated in that process or not because you always have to prove intent.
JEFFREY KAYE: Robert Dornan is pursuing this contest with classic vigor. Over the years he has polarized friends and critics with his passion for conservative causes and his pugnacious temperament. Last month, the House of Representatives voted to ban Dornan from the chamber, after an altercation with a Sanchez supporter.
JEFFREY KAYE: Do you think–and here I’m asking you to put on your hat as state Republican chairman and an advocate for Mr. Dornan simultaneously–that you would have gotten more support from Republicans if the candidate hadn’t have been Bob Dornan?
MICHAEL SCHROEDER: I think that’s probably true. I mean, I think that somebody who is more compromising probably would have gotten more support. But this contest has never, ever been about Bob Dornan. Absolutely the starting point of all of our rights in this country is our right to vote. You take that away, nothing else matters. And we absolutely cannot compromise or back off, even if its bad politics for us in the short term.
JEFFREY KAYE: And in the long-term Robert Dornan and Loretta Sanchez may be in for a re-match. Both say they’ll run in the even of a special election if the last one is overturned, and both have indicated intentions to run in the congressional election set for next year.