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Judge Upholds Charge Against Assemblyman

Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge on Tuesday rejected a motion to dismiss a forgery indictment against Assemblyman John R. Lewis (R-Orange), who is accused of forging former President Ronald Reagan’s name on endorsement letters mailed to thousands of voters in 1986.

Defense attorneys, relying on a nearly 100-year-old state Supreme Court decision, maintained that Lewis could not be charged with forgery because he did not intend to defraud anyone of money or property. They said phony endorsements were at most an unfair ploy to influence the voters.

But Sacramento County Superior Court Judge James Morris ruled that the voters could have been defrauded of their right to fair elections, and ordered Lewis to appear for arraignment May 2.

The law, Morris said, “is not limited to issues of the defrauding of a property right, but does include a defrauding of an intangible, non-property right.” Morris also referred to that right as the “voting franchise right.”

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As many as 480,000 of the letters were mailed to voters in six Assembly races in 1986, even though the White House had denied permission for Reagan’s name to be used on the letters, according to a transcript of the grand jury proceeding that resulted in Lewis’ indictment.

Lewis, as chairman of the Assembly GOP elections committee, gave the order to Republican staff members to send the campaign letters without White House authorization, according to the transcript.

Clyde Blackmon, Lewis’ attorney, said he intends to appeal Tuesday’s decision. Blackmon first will ask the state Court of Appeal to stay further proceedings in the case, which could delay the matter for several months.

Blackmon based his argument on the California Supreme Court decision in People vs. Wong Sam, an 1897 case involving a U.S. Customs official’s action denying landing rights to a Chinese immigrant who arrived in San Francisco aboard a steamship.

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The customs official acted after receiving a letter bearing the phony signature of a Chinese interpreter for a Los Angeles court. The letter, actually written by Wong Sam, argued that the immigrant should not be admitted to the country because the man had run a house of prostitution and kept a “concubine” in Los Angeles.

Sam was prosecuted for forgery, but the charges were dropped because the letter, the Supreme Court ruled, “could not have the effect to defraud.”

Similarly, Blackmon contends, the phony presidential endorsement letters allegedly prepared by Lewis for the six Assembly candidates should not be considered an attempt to defraud. Instead, he said, the letters should be seen as an effort “to influence the voters in a certain way, presumably against the Democratic candidates in those campaigns.”

“In this indictment, the prosecution attempts to transform the ancient common law offense of forgery into an ‘anti-corruption’ tool, requiring an unwarranted expansion of traditional notions of fraud,” Blackmon wrote in a brief submitted to the court last week.

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But W. Scott Thorpe, a supervising deputy attorney general who is prosecuting the Lewis case, argued that fraud could occur even without the loss of money or property.

He alleged that the voters were “defrauded of their right to exercise their vote with full knowledge of whether in fact the President had signed these letters.” Obviously, when the President of the United States endorses someone and sends a letter, that can have an impact on an election.”


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