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Latino Leaders Stand Behind Hermandad

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County Latino leaders stood firm Wednesday behind Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, a day after documents laid out in detail the organization’s alleged role in registering hundreds of noncitizens to vote.

Prominent members of Orange County’s Latino community said that none of the evidence revealed this week had shaken their belief that Hermandad, a Latino rights organization, has been unfairly smeared.

“We firmly and consistently believe that there was no deliberate, felonious behavior,” said Amin David, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, a group dedicated to promoting Latino interests. “When the dust finally settles, the district attorney will have no indictments.”

David and others said Wednesday that at most the investigation might reveal that some noncitizens--all legal residents--mistakenly registered to vote before they were eligible. They said the latest revelations failed to suggest any criminal intent on the part of Hermandad employees.

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What the revelations have done, they said, is foster a hostile atmosphere for Latino immigrants in Orange County. They said that allegations of voting improprieties have emboldened racists and immigrant bashers, and made life more difficult for many immigrants.

“The radical right does not want to share power,” said Alex Nogales, chair of the media committee for Citizens of Democracy, the group that came together to help defend Hermandad. “They believe the conspiracy theory that the only way [Latinos] can win is by cheating.”

Rueben Martinez, owner of Martinez Books and Art Gallery in Santa Ana, said he was troubled by the controversy. But he said if it were proved later that Hermandad did anything improper, then he fully expected it would be punished.

“If Hermandad did something wrong, we want to help them,” Martinez said. “But you have to pay if you do something wrong.”

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In November, when allegations first surfaced about noncitizens registering to vote, David, Nogales and others rushed to the defense of Hermandad, which means brotherhood in Spanish. They formed Citizens for Democracy. They publicly condemned the allegations. Several hundred people demonstrated outside Los Angeles Times offices in Costa Mesa and Los Angeles to protest the newspapers’ coverage.

Court documents released Tuesday suggested that authorities believe more than 200 noncitizens signed up to vote at Hermandad’s Santa Ana office.

Prosecutors searching the offices of Hermandad compared the names of people who registered to vote at Hermandad with a list people who were taking citizenship courses there. They determined that at least 227 noncitizens registered to vote at Hermandad’s office.

The documents also revealed that the district attorney’s investigation began when four legal residents taking citizenship classes at Hermandad went to authorities on their own initiative, when they began to worry that they had been wrongly registered to vote by Hermandad employees.

No one has been charged in the investigation.

Some Latino leaders pointed out that the latest revelations against Hermandad were simply allegations--not evidence and not proof. They pointed out, for instance, that the five people quoted by a district attorney’s investigator about Hermandad remain anonymous.

Many of Hermandad’s backers said they would wait and see what the investigation uncovers before drawing any more conclusions.

“There isn’t anything there of substance,” said Art Montez, president of the Santa Ana chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “You can always find human error in any big organization. That’s why every company has an audit, and every house is inspected after it’s built.”

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Nogales, who also chairs the National Hispanic Media Coalition, said the controversy has frightened some immigrants away from the citizenship process.

“This is a community that is very afraid,” he said.

Monsignor Jamie Soto, the vicar for the Hispanic community in the Archdiocese of Orange County, agreed that the Hermandad controversy is demoralizing Orange County’s Latino population.

“The longer the allegations continue and there is no resolution to the controversy, the more it discourages many in the community,” Soto said.

Nogales and others reiterated their charge that coverage by the media, and especially The Los Angeles Times, had distorted the facts and concealed important information.

In particular, Nogales charged that The Times had allowed former U. S. Rep. Robert K. Dornan, who lost his seat in November, to foist his agenda on the newspaper. He also accused The Times of failing to disclose that it had relied on election data generated by the Fair Elections Group in Torrance, which was also providing data to Dornan.

“These are very significant things,” Nogales said.

But David and others said they felt that the media coverage had become more responsible recently.

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Montez echoed the sentiments of many leaders in the Latino community who said they wanted to help Hermandad and its director, Nativo Lopez, during rough times.

“It’s like they say in the Marines,” Montez said, “you never abandon your wounded.”


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