The leaders of 12 prominent Latino organizations harshly criticized the Los Angeles Times on Thursday, contending the newspaper had smeared the entire Latino community in Orange County by using flimsy evidence of a losing congressional candidate who claimed that noncitizens voted illegally.
The activists were angered by the national attention following a Dec. 27 report in The Times that 19 applicants for U.S. citizenship registered to vote with the aid of a Latino civil rights group and later cast ballots. The Latino activists recently formed a group called Citizens for Democracy, which they said is designed to protect people from allegations of voting irregularities. Their charges were leveled at a news conference at which they announced the installation of a toll-free telephone number to report allegations of voter intimidation by authorities.
The controversy developed after The Times reported that noncitizens voted in the central Orange County district that included the contentious congressional race between Democrat Loretta Sanchez and Republican Robert K. Dornan. Dornan, the longtime incumbent who lost by 984 votes, has made similar claims, and the county district attorney's office is investigating those charges.
"I find it very hard to believe that a newspaper would allow itself to be used by the Dornan camp, taking their data and, in fact, making that the truth," said Alex Nogales, chair of the National Hispanic Media Coalition. "I'm talking about the Los Angeles Times."
Nogales said the newspaper obtained lists of voters from the same election consulting service that provided them to Dornan, raising a question about the newspaper's objectivity. He said the newspaper has failed to report that in 1984, Dornan registered to vote in Orange County listing a Buena Park address at which he did not live.
Leonard Bernstein, managing editor for news in the Times Orange County Edition, said The Times' information was independently obtained through interviews of 64 voters, 19 of whom said they registered to vote with the aid of Santa Ana-based Hermandad Mexicana Nacional before being sworn in as citizens.
Bernstein said The Times separately obtained voter lists from the same Torrance-based election group that Dornan used, but did not use Dornan's data.
Nativo V. Lopez, Hermandad's executive director, who won a seat on the Santa Ana school board this fall, has acknowledged that some students in immigration classes sponsored by the group voted before being sworn in as citizens. He attributed the problems to misunderstandings and overzealousness by those about to become citizens.
Attorney Alfredo Amezcua, chairman of the new group, dismissed the disclosures about voting irregularities as part of a pattern of "Latino bashing" that he said has intensifying since 1988.
Amezcua, who stressed that the group does not condone election fraud, said the hotline number, (800) 936-3613, was established for voters who believe they have been intimidated.