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Investigators Say Group Helped Noncitizens Vote

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Authorities believe that employees of a Latino rights group “willfully and unlawfully” helped 227 noncitizens register to vote, in some instances illegally filling out the forms themselves, court documents show.

Hermandad Mexicana Nacional representatives also might have conspired to run an illegal lottery to encourage people to register, the records show. The winner--a noncitizen--was allegedly shortchanged when given $12,000 instead of the advertised prize, a 1996 Chevrolet Camaro valued at between $18,000 and $20,000.

The allegations surfaced Tuesday when a judge unsealed the sworn statement of an Orange County district attorney’s investigator who was granted permission to lead a search of Hermandad’s Santa Ana office on Jan. 14.

The investigator said he believed a search would find that Hermandad employees had committed felony violations of the Elections Code by assisting or registering unqualified persons to vote; aided in casting fraudulent ballots; induced people to commit perjury on voter registration documents; and conspired to run an illegal lottery. Some noncitizens also might have broken the law, he said.

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A spokesman for Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi declined Tuesday to say what exactly they found, only that the investigation is continuing.

Hermandad officials, including an attorney for Santa Ana Executive Director Nativo V. Lopez, said they had not seen the search warrant affidavit and could not comment. In the past they have said that an internal investigation found no impropriety on their part.

They also have acknowledged that some overeager people who took citizenship classes at Hermandad might have registered and cast ballots after passing a citizenship test but before being officially sworn in by a judge.

State law makes it unlawful for a noncitizen to vote or register to vote.

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The 39-page affidavit, filed in Orange County Municipal Court last month, reveals for the first time the scope of an official investigation into alleged voter fraud that focuses on Hermandad. The district attorney launched the probe in October, shortly before former Rep. Robert K. Dornan went to the California secretary of state with allegations of voter fraud after narrowly losing his seat in the Nov. 5 election.

“It appears that Hermandad Mexicana Nacional assisted hundreds of persons to register to vote,” the court papers read. “At least 227 of those registered to vote were not qualified by virtue of not yet being citizens of the United States.”

Secretary of State Bill Jones said Tuesday that “based on information contained in our search warrant, it is clear that an alarming number of noncitizens registered to vote for the November election. As our aggressive investigation continues, I believe the facts will speak for themselves.”

The search warrant affidavit was used to win a judge’s permission for the district attorney’s office and the secretary of state to search the Santa Ana offices of Hermandad on Jan. 14. Investigators seized employee records, computers, citizenship files, bank records and other documents during that daylong search.

The affidavit was sealed prior to the search under court order, but was unsealed by Judge James M. Brooks on Tuesday after The Times filed a motion in Municipal Court.

Investigators quote five confidential informants. Two specifically asked authorities to conceal their identities because they feared retaliation from Hermandad, according to the affidavit.

One informant told investigators that the “voter registration effort was being coordinated by” people at Hermandad “known to him as Rosa Ibarra and Jose Refugio Mejia.” Ibarra is the wife of Nativo V. Lopez, the director of Hermandad’s offices in Santa Ana who won a seat on the Santa Ana Unified School District board in November.

Ibarra has served as Hermandad’s treasurer and program director. Mejia is a board member who has also worked as office coordinator.

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All five informants were identified as noncitizens who were registered to vote by Hermandad employees. They took classes at Hermandad and were noncitizens when they registered to vote through Hermandad, the document shows. One became a citizen just prior to the election and re-registered legally after surrendering an improper registration form on Oct. 10.

Two of the remaining four voted fraudulently, according to the affidavit. All five blamed Hermandad for encouraging them to register though they were not yet sworn in.

Two of the informants, who attended INS interviews a month apart, said everyone exiting the interviews was signed up by Hermandad employees to vote, the court papers claim. Two of the informants also said they signed registration forms that had been filled out for them by Hermandad employees, though the employees did not also sign the form as required by law.

The affidavit also describes how Lopez last April checked out 1,000 blank registration cards and declared under penalty of perjury that he “will take reasonable steps to ensure that” anyone who distributes them shall know the rules and penalties surrounding registering noncitizens.

Lopez, Ibarra and Mejia declined comment or referred reporters to Hermandad attorney Mark S. Rosen, who said he had not yet seen the documents. Ed Munoz, an attorney for Lopez, also declined to comment, saying he had not seen the court papers.

Another informant said a man named “Francisco,” one of the instructors of a citizenship class, told the informant it was all right to vote after the informant passed an interview with the INS.

Yet another informant, who received a lottery ticket, said that a male employee of Hermandad filled out his voter registration form and an absentee ballot application, which the informant signed. This was done at the Hermandad headquarters immediately following his successful completion of a citizenship interview with the INS in late June or July.

The informant said that Hermandad employees “registered everyone to vote as they left their interview” with the INS, and “if you investigate, everyone will tell you the same thing.”

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By matching U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service files with a list of voters registered on cards issued to Hermandad by the Orange County registrar of voters, investigators determined that at least 227 noncitizens registered to vote.

The Times reported Saturday that the names of 374 people who registered to vote on cards issued to Hermandad matched the names of people Hermandad said were still applying for citizenship with the aid of the agency, and that 220 of them cast ballots in the Nov. 5 election.

Hermandad registered 1,322 people and 759 of them voted, according to the court filing, which does not say how many noncitizens might have voted.

The court document notes that Mejia was issued 2,000 registration cards in 1996, Ibarra was issued 375 cards in 1994 and Lopez was issued 1,200 in 1996. The first complaint citing Hermandad as a source for the registration of noncitizens was received by the district attorney’s office in mid-October, according to the court papers.

Hermandad also has been the target of voter fraud allegations by Dornan, who lost in November by 984 votes to Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove).

Among his allegations, Dornan first raised the issue of whether Hermandad broke the law by offering free $10 tickets in a lottery to residents who could show proof they had registered to vote or had voted in elections in 1996.

Under state law, such a lottery itself is illegal. Under federal law, it is a crime to offer anything of value in exchange for registering to vote or voting.

Last December, Hermandad officials said they stopped using the raffle in April as an inducement for registering or voting because they had realized there might be legal problems.

In the three weeks since the search of Hermandad offices, investigators have interviewed dozens of the group’s clients and people who registered to vote.

One of them, an Anaheim woman who is not a citizen, said in an interview Tuesday that an Hermandad employee told her to vote in the November election despite knowing she was not yet naturalized. She said she received her registration card in the mail from Hermandad.

“I called Hermandad and asked a woman in the legal department if I could vote,” said the 43-year-old woman, a native of Bolivia. “I told her I was waiting for a swearing-in date, but she said I could vote anyway.”

The woman, who agreed to be interviewed on condition that her identity be protected, passed the INS interview in September after attending three citizenship classes at Hermandad’s Santa Ana office. She hired Santa Ana attorney Kathyrn E. Terry last year to help her with her citizenship application after paying Hermandad $100 to process her citizenship request.

Times staff writer Dexter Filkins contributed to this report.

* GOOD CHANCE OF TROUBLE: Investigators allege illegal lottery tied to registration. A13

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Allegations Against Hermandad

In an affidavit unsealed Tuesday, the district attorney’s office alleged that employees at Hermandad Mexicana Nacional might have committed the following felonies:

* Registered at least 227 noncitizens to vote before they became citizens. Five people who attended citizenship classes at Hermandad Mexicana Nacional told investigators that Hermandad employees urged them to register, told them they were qualified to vote though they had yet to be sworn in and, in some cases, filled out forms for them.

* Assisted noncitizens in voting. Many of the 227 noncitizens who Hermandad helped register voted in the Nov. 5 election. Affidavit does not say how many of the 227 actually cast ballots.

* Encouraged the 227 noncitizens to commit perjury by registering them to vote. State law makes it a felony to lie--or to encourage someone to lie--on a voter registration card. Affidavit says at least 227 people swore they were citizens when they were not.

* Held a lottery for a 1996 Chevrolet Camaro, selling tickets for $10 each. State law prohibits such lotteries. Affidavit notes that while the price of a new Camaro is $18,000 to $20,000, Hermandad did not award that car to the winner. Instead, it gave a Fullerton man a $12,000 credit toward purchase of a car, which he used to buy a 1990 Chevrolet Astro van.

The affidavit also says the 227 noncitizens who registered to vote at Hermandad might have committed perjury by declaring they were citizens on their voter registration cards. It is not clear, however, whether the district attorney’s office intends to prosecute these people.

Source: Orange County district attorney’s office


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