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Official Questions Absentee Vote Form by Prop. P Backers

Times Staff Writer

California Secretary of State March Fong Eu on Friday asked City Atty. James K. Hahn to investigate what she said is a faulty absentee ballot form distributed on behalf of the campaign for the Los Angeles pro-drilling measure, Proposition P.

Eu, the state’s top election official, said in a letter to Hahn, “I believe that (there) is evidence sufficient to support a successful prosecution.”

Within hours after a press release on the Hahn letter was issued, however, Eu’s chief deputy said it was unclear whether the violation was intentional. The measure on the Nov. 8 ballot would preserve Occidental Petroleum Corp.'s permit to drill for oil and gas in the Pacific Palisades across Pacific Coast Highway from Will Rogers State Beach.

“It appears quite clearly there is a violation,” said Tony Miller, Eu’s chief deputy. “There is a dispute whether the violation is willful or not.”

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Mike Qualls, a Hahn spokesman, said Eu’s letter is “under review.” Violation of the code section is subject to a $250 fine.

Proposition P officials denied any wrongdoing, adding that the absentee ballot form had been given the go-ahead by county election officials.

“There is absolutely no problem with any one of these applications,” said attorney Wes Van Winkle of the San Francisco firm of Bagatelos & Fadem, which is advising the pro-drilling campaign. “People are getting their (absentee) ballots.”

At issue is an absentee ballot application mailed to about 97,000 homes several weeks ago urging voters to avoid long lines by voting by mail. The reply card carried an address of the Proposition P campaign on Gower Street in Hollywood.

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A Proposition P spokeswoman said that more than 15,700 of the applications have been returned to the campaign and forwarded to the registrar-recorder’s office.

Eu deputy Miller said, however, that instructions on the card applications should have clearly directed the addressees to send them directly to the county election officials instead of through the campaign office.

Van Winkle responded that the address of the registrar-recorder’s office was included on the absentee ballot application. Furthermore, he said, county officials verbally approved the format that included the campaign’s address on the front of the business reply mailer.

The Proposition P campaign attorney said he called Eu’s office late Friday, saying he was “extremely upset they would go public without us having a chance to tell our side of the story.”

Miller told The Times that whether or not the violation was intentional, “we’re mainly concerned that this not happen any more. . . . We have been assured that the applications will be forwarded to the registrar-recorder.”

Proposition P spokesman Mickey Kantor said campaign officials wanted the absentee ballot applications returned to them in order to learn who might be sympathetic to the drilling measure.

But Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, a co-sponsor of rival measure Proposition O, which would kill the drilling project, ascribed a more sinister motive to the absentee ballot effort.

“This is an attempt clearly by Occidental not only to buy an election but to manipulate the results,” Yaroslavsky said.

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