5 File Suit Claiming Harassment at Polls by Security Guards

Times Political Writer

A lawsuit was filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana on behalf of five Santa Ana Latinos, who said they were harassed and intimidated by uniformed security guards as they voted last Election Day.

The suit, which was announced earlier this week, asks the court to overturn the results of the hotly contested 72nd Assembly District race won by Republican Curt Pringle by just 867 votes. The chairman of Orange County's Republican Party had conceded that the guards were hired at the request of Pringle's campaign consultant.

Suit Seeks Damages

The suit also asks for unspecified damages for the plaintiffs and a judgment that the guards' actions unconstitutionally interfered with the plaintiffs' right to vote.

The plaintiffs--all of whom eventually did vote--are Rudy R. Rios, 38, a construction worker; Jose Diaz Vargas, 52, a Santa Ana police officer; Helen R. Canales, 88, a housewife; Tommy Q. Canales, age unknown, who is retired, and Jane Fantauzzi, 74, who is retired.

Joining as plaintiffs in the lawsuit were the Hispanic Political Council and the Laborers' International Union of North America, Local 652. Both organizations had assisted in voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts on behalf of Pringle's Democratic opponent, Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach. The two candidates spent in excess of $2.1 million on the race.

The guards appeared in the largely Latino precincts at 7 a.m. on Election Day, Nov. 8, wearing dark-blue uniforms and carrying signs in Spanish and English warning non-citizens not to vote. In some instances, the guards sat behind tables with poll workers, and at least one of them handled voters' ballots.

The guards were ordered away from the polls within hours by Orange County Registrar Donald F. Tanney, who also was named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Under the law, only voters and election officials may be within 100 feet of the polls.

Plaintiff Rios, a member of the Laborers' Union, said Friday that the security guard at his precinct was seated behind the table with voting officials.

"As I got close, he got up and crossed his arms and looked at me," Rios said. "I thought, 'Are they expecting trouble today or what's happening?' I thought, 'Wow, this is like Mexico or something.' " Rios, a second generation American, said that his wife is from Mexico and that he has heard "horrible stories of guards and stuff" at Mexican elections from her relatives.

Vargas and Fantauzzi refused to comment on the suit. The Canaleses could not be reached.

Attorney Kathleen Purcell of San Francisco, who prepared the 30-page suit, said: "The real focus of this complaint . . . is the activity of the defendants, which was designed to and had the effect of intimidating and harassing these people and others who were trying to exercise their right to vote."

The lawsuit alleges that the guards were told to "question voters and prospective voters who looked Hispanic regarding their eligibility to vote and to demand documentation of citizenship" and "to take down license plate numbers of the vehicles of Hispanic voters and prospective voters."

The suit also alleges that the guards were told to "inspect and/or handle completed ballots presented by voters, particularly by 'Hispanic looking people.' " Among the 16 defendants named in the suit are Pringle, Orange County GOP Chairman Thomas A. Fuentes, county Republican Party executive director Greg Haskins and Pringle's political consultant, Carlos Rodriguez.

The incident involving the guards brought sharp criticism from within the Republican Party, which has been trying to cultivate Latino voters. But the strongest outcry came from Latino and Democratic leaders, who alleged that the presence of the uniformed guards could have frightened away voters who were exercising their rights for the first time and also could have affected the outcome of the race.

Fuentes, who authorized payment of more than $4,000 in party funds for the guards, has apologized to the Latino community for the incident. Friday, however, he dismissed the legal action as a "partisan political effort" instigated by Democrats "for the purpose of getting a pound of flesh from Orange County Republicans in retribution" for having won the 72nd District.

Fuentes said he approved use of the guards at the request of Rodriguez because of rumors that Democrats would try to bus in people to vote illegally in the election. Both men had previously said Rodriguez also asked Fuentes to pay for the signs carried by the guards. When he refused, Rodriguez paid about $2,000 for them from Pringle's campaign fund.

Rodriguez could not be reached Friday for comment regarding the lawsuit.

Also named in the suit were the Mission Viejo firm, Saddleback Security Services Corp., which provided the guards, and several Republicans active in Pringle's campaign.

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