Jason Roberts sat in a makeshift witness stand inside Vernon City Hall, looking increasingly irritated as an attorney peppered him with questions about his family's votes in a recent City Council election.
"This is the first time I ever voted before, I didn't know it was going to be such a pain in the butt," Roberts, 33, said toward the end of 30 minutes of questioning. "I won't vote again. This is crazy."
One by one, more than a dozen of the 64 people who voted in the June City Council election in Vernon have testified under oath this month, part of a highly unusual investigation by the city into alleged voter fraud. Voters have faced questions about their commuting patterns, Facebook pages and financial histories. One man was even asked to describe whether his relationship with a girlfriend in Orange County was "romantic" or "amicable."
The setting looked like a formal judicial hearing, but Vernon was paying the bills. The city hired a former U.S. attorney and judge, Debra Yang, to oversee the hearing at $990 an hour. Wearing a judge's black robe, Yang presided with a court reporter and two assistants at her side.
Many of the voters were tracked down by process servers who delivered subpoenas requiring them to testify. Not all of them were happy to participate.
"I'm 90 years old. I have enough trouble getting up in the morning," said Roberts' grandfather, Bernard Roberts, during his time on the stand. "I don't know what the hell I'm doing here."
The June council race was seen as a turning point for Vernon, a city that had been dogged by corruption charges and election irregularities. It was a rare competitive campaign and officials were pushing a series of government reforms.
Candidate Reno Bellamy emerged with a 34-30 victory. But the city's Chamber of Commerce and some at City Hall had backed Bellamy's opponent, Luz Martinez, and the chamber alleges that nine of the ballots cast for Bellamy came from people who didn't live in Vernon.
The Los Angeles County registrar-recorder dismissed those challenges, calling the election for Bellamy.
Vernon officials responded by changing the city's election rules, passing a law that set up the special hearing process. (Councilman William Davis even flew back to Vernon from a vacation in Italy — at taxpayer expense — to vote in favor of the ordinance.)
Vernon's city clerk has so far issued nearly 30 subpoenas, including one to the office of County Registrar Dean Logan. Logan said his office provided the records in question, but expressed some concern about the entire process.
"The line that needs to be watched carefully is when do you cross between ensuring election security and integrity … to a situation where you're interfering with a voter's opportunity to exercise their right?" he said.
Vernon is home to 1,800 businesses but only 112 residents, and critics have long argued that city leaders are able to manipulate elections by hand-picking candidates and evicting challengers. In 2006, city officials refused to count the ballots in a contested council race until a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ordered them to do so.
Bellamy and his attorney say the hearing this month is another example of Vernon's leaders taking the election process into their own hands. They point out that some of the voters who are now being scrutinized were never questioned by the city when they voted in favor of a referendum last November supported by city leaders.
City officials defend the proceedings, citing strong evidence of voter fraud. Fred MacFarlane, a city spokesman, said the council wanted a full hearing to take place on the ballot challenges. The county registrar's office had only reviewed evidence challenging the vote that had been submitted by the Chamber of Commerce.
Marguerite Leoni, a lawyer advising the city, said Vernon's jurisdiction over the matter is spelled out in its charter, which refers to the City Council as the "final judge of election results."
"I don't know how other cities would do it," Leoni said. "But this council wanted transparency and openness. We have a retired judge up there — everything is set up so it's fair."
Testimony played out over three days in Vernon's council chamber. More than 50 exhibits were admitted into evidence, ranging from DMV and property records to past voter registrations.
Fredric Woocher, the chamber's attorney, questioned some voters at length in an effort to show that they were not "domiciled" in the city, and therefore not legally registered to vote there.
Victor Garcia, a 24-year-old grocery store clerk, testified that he considered his stepbrother's house in Vernon his home, even though he often slept at his father's place in Garden Grove, or with friends in Anaheim. Woocher grilled Garcia about his bank account and identification card — neither of which uses the address of his stepbrother's home.
Woocher also introduced into evidence printouts of Garcia's Facebook page, in which he listed himself as a resident of Garden Grove and discussed meeting his stepbrother to watch a Laker game.
"Oh, so you guys are going ahead and downloading my conversations with people now?" Garcia asked.
"Well, you need to check your privacy settings," Woocher said.
"I didn't think I had to worry about that," Garcia replied. "I didn't think I was going to get stalked or harassed."
Another challenged voter, Gary Sabara Jr., 33, was asked how often he stayed with a friend in Vernon, how many nights a week he slept at his girlfriend's apartment in Orange County, and how often he saw his children.
In interviews, Woocher and Chamber of Commerce leaders have suggested that the illegal voting was coordinated by former city officials looking to reclaim their jobs at City Hall.
Woocher described the individual voters as "pawns who got in so deep now that they don't know how to get out," adding that he was confident the chamber would succeed in disqualifying the five ballots it needs to swing the race. Closing arguments in the hearing are expected early next month.
Bellamy, meanwhile, has already initiated a lawsuit against the city for its handling of the vote.
Election law experts described the proceedings as highly unusual, saying that such disputes are usually handled by the courts.
"I can't tell you it's never happened, but it's not something I've heard of before," said Rick Hasen, a professor at UC Irvine Law School who specializes in election law. Questions of voter residency, he said, "are very slippery, difficult questions, because each person's life circumstance is different ... that's precisely the reason you would want independent judicial review."
The hearings have irked even some of the city's biggest supporters.
One resident, Carol Menke, traveled to Sacramento last year to speak out against state lawmakers who wanted to disincorporate the city. But now two of her brother-in-laws have been accused of voting illegally and she has refused the city's request that she testify at the hearings.
"I'm disgusted with the whole lot of them," she said. "Maybe I just have to get out of Vernon."
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