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Supplied Guards for Polling Places : Security Firm Agrees to Settle in O.C. Voter Case

Times Staff Writer

The security firm hired by the Orange County Republican Party to stop non-citizens from voting last fall agreed Tuesday to pay $60,000 to six plaintiffs who claimed in a lawsuit that their civil rights were violated.

The settlement, which still must be approved by U.S. District Judge J. Spencer Letts in Santa Ana, was disclosed Tuesday in court.

If accepted by the judge, the settlement will be the first resolution of litigation brought in the wake of the poll-guard controversy. The guards caused an uproar in one of last November’s most bitterly contested Orange County elections, leading not only to an FBI investigation but also to the introduction of state legislation that would outlaw unsanctioned guards at polling places.

The lawsuit alleged that the guards, who were carrying signs in Spanish warning non-citizens not to vote, reportedly intimidated first-time Latino voters and may have frightened them away from the polls. The suit asked that the election results be overturned.

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Of the various defendants in the suit, only the security company has settled. Letts indicated that he will not permit other defendants, including Assemblymen Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) and John Lewis (R-Orange), to make claims that the security firm is more at fault than they are and should pay any damages.

In effect, lawyers in the case said, the judge was ruling that the individual actions of Saddleback Security Services Corp. employees who may have violated the Election Code are a separate issue in regard to whether Pringle, Lewis and county Republican Party officials intended to influence the outcome of the election.

San Francisco attorney Kathleen Purcell, who is representing the six plaintiffs, said Tuesday that she was pleased with the proposed settlement, adding: “It’s a fairly substantial sum of money.”

But David A. Robinson, attorney for Pringle and Lewis, was irked both by the settlement and the judge’s statements and said he would appeal.

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“The settlement shows that the plaintiffs are merely out to put money in their pockets,” Robinson said. “We also think that the judge is dead wrong. . . . He abused his authority” in not allowing the other defendants to make claims against Saddleback Security.

Bruce Gridley, attorney for Saddleback Security, said the firm agreed to the settlement--without acknowledging any wrongdoing--out of a realization that it was not economical to prolong the dispute. Legal costs, he said, have already exceeded the amount of the settlement.

Gridley said he would file a motion today seeking to have the proposed settlement accepted as a “good faith” agreement. The other defendants are expected to oppose the motion.

Gridley added: “It was uncontradicted by any party either in oral argument or paper work that there was no intent on the part of Saddleback to influence the election outcome.”

The uniformed guards were stationed at polling places in 20 largely Latino precincts in Santa Ana on Election Day. They were hired at the suggestion of a political consultant for Pringle, who ended up winning the costly 72nd Assembly District election by fewer than 900 votes.

Thomas A. Fuentes, the county Republican chairman who is also a defendant in the lawsuit, has said that he authorized about $4,000 in party money to hire the guards because of rumors that illegal voters were to be bused in to tip the election in favor of the Democratic candidate, Christian F. (Rick) Thierbach.

Darryl Wold, attorney for the Orange County Republican Party, was unavailable for comment.

As a result of the Orange County controversy, a bill is moving through the state Legislature that would prohibit any uniformed security guard or peace officer from being within 100 feet of a polling place without the permission of the appropriate elections official.

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