A U.S. Justice Department attorney investigating the Orange County Republican Party's 1988 placement of uniformed guards at polling places in Latino neighborhoods said in a recent letter that "it will be difficult" to bring criminal charges in the case.
In the first comment about the nearly two-year criminal investigation, U.S. Deputy Assistant Atty. Gen. Bruce C. Navarro wrote that federal laws may not apply because there was no violence involved and the laws it has found regarding voter intimidation pertain only to federal races--not one for state Assembly.
Navarro, in a response to an inquiry by Rep. Jim Bates (D-San Diego), added, however, that there has not been a final determination about whether criminal charges will be filed.
Still, he wrote: "It is becoming apparent to both (civil rights and criminal) divisions that it will be difficult to find a federal enforcement remedy for the sort of nonviolent patrolling of the exterior of polling precincts by private uniformed guards, such as that which appears to have taken place in Santa Ana."
The poll guard case stems from the decision by county Republican Party leaders and the campaign of Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) to hire guards at 20 polling places in predominantly Latino neighborhoods of Santa Ana for the 1988 general election. Some of the guards carried signs written in Spanish that warned those who were not citizens that it was illegal to vote.
Republican officials said the guards were hired in response to rumors that Pringle's Democratic opponent was planning to bring busloads of illegal voters into the district. Pringle won the race by just more than 800 votes.
The county Republican Party and Pringle's campaign later settled a civil suit out of court for more than $400,000 that was filed by five Latino voters who charged they were intimidated by the guards.
Reuben Martinez, a Democratic activist and head of a group formed to seek a resolution of the case, said Wednesday that he was frustrated and depressed by the Justice Department letter.
"There are some charges, and somebody better find them," he said. "I'm not going to let this end. This shows there is no justice for the Latino community."
Martinez and other Latino community leaders have complained that Orange County Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi, whose office participated in the joint criminal investigation, should be disqualified because he is receiving help in his current election campaign from some of the same Republican leaders being investigated.
Capizzi said there is no conflict because he is not directly involved in the investigation and that it has been assigned to Deputy Dist. Atty. Wallace J. Wade.
"If this case had happened in Los Angeles or San Francisco, it would have been over long ago," Martinez said. "It's just the good-old-boy politics in the district attorney's office."
Martinez and other protesters have begun picketing Capizzi's office every week. Today, Martinez and Wade are scheduled to meet and discuss the issue.
Navarro's letter, dated Sept. 6, said the 1965 Voting Rights Act's anti-intimidation provision is only enforceable through "non-criminal lawsuits, similar to the one already successfully brought by some of the individual voters."
In other federal law, he said there is only one criminal statute regarding nonviolent voter intimidation, one that would apply misdemeanor penalties in elections for federal office, but not Pringle's state Assembly race.
He also noted that the investigation found that none of the guards were armed--as had been claimed--and none of the plaintiffs in the civil suit were actually deterred from voting by the guards.
The letter wrongly states that the Republican Party dedicated part of its $400,000 settlement to "remedying whatever adverse impact may have been caused." Actually, it was the plaintiffs in the case who decided to contribute $150,000 of the settlement to voter registration efforts in the Latino community.
Navarro was not available for comment Wednesday. Justice Department spokespersons and Deputy Dist. Atty. Wade also declined comment on details of the case.
A spokesman for Bates said the congressman's office is evaluating the letter. Bates' complaint also was filed with the Civil Rights and Immigration subcommittee for a possible congressional hearing. A subcommittee spokesman said it is also reviewing the Justice Department's response.
Navarro's letter attributes the length of the investigation to the time necessary for the district attorney's office to complete its investigation and for the civil suit to be completed. The letter did not elaborate on why it was necessary for the civil suit to be concluded first.