A state attorney general’s investigation into letters apparently designed to suppress Latino voter turnout in Orange County for the upcoming election is focusing on the campaign of Republican congressional candidate Tan Nguyen, according to people familiar with the inquiry.
Nguyen, who has made halting illegal immigration part of his platform, is running an underdog campaign to unseat Rep. Loretta Sanchez, who represents Santa Ana and is Orange County’s only Democratic member of Congress.
In a fast-moving examination that began just days after the letters were mailed, sources said investigators tracked down the location where they were printed and mailed to an estimated 14,000 Democratic voters in central Orange County.
Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, appearing Wednesday on the Patt Morrison show on 89.3 KPCC FM, said his office believes it knows who financed the letters, but said interviews were still being conducted and declined to provide further detail.
“That’s the preliminary assessment, that there were one or more Republican candidates for office that were associated with this effort,” Lockyer said.
A spokesman for Lockyer declined to elaborate. But two sources with direct knowledge of the inquiry said investigators were focusing on Nguyen’s campaign, and a third said agents had interviewed Nguyen at his office.
Separately, county Registrar Neal Kelley sent a memo to Orange County supervisors informing them that the investigation is “now focusing on a congressional candidate.” He declined to elaborate beyond the memo.
Nguyen did not return requests for comment left on his cellphone and campaign voicemails, and there was no response to an e-mail sent to his campaign. There was no response to messages left for campaign workers at their homes, and his campaign office was closed Wednesday evening.
Sanchez’s office also did not return telephone calls seeking comment.
The letter, which purports to be from a Huntington Beach-based group, warns that immigrants will not be permitted to vote in the election. It also warns that the state has developed a tracking system that will allow the names of Latino voters to be handed over to anti-immigrant groups.
“You are advised that if your residence in this country is illegal or you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that could result in jail time,” the letter, written in Spanish, says.
Nguyen has made cracking down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his race, and his campaign materials feature a picture of him putting up a sign that says “Stop illegal immigration.”
Until now, the campaign for the 47th Congressional District had generated little notice, and though it has historically been a competitive seat, Sanchez is expected to cruise to reelection. Democrats hold a 5-percentage point voter registration advantage, though there are a large number of decline-to-state voters.
Latinos make up 35% of registered voters in the district, Asians make up 18%.
“He’s not popular with the Republican Party down there,” said Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican consultant and publisher of the California Target Book, an insiders’ guide to handicapping political races. “Nobody seems to be paying any attention to it.”
The district partly overlaps with the 34th state Senate District, where Supervisor Lou Correa, a Democrat, is locked in a tough election battle with former Assemblywoman Lynn Daucher, a Republican.
The letterhead resembles that of California Coalition for Immigration Reform, a group that advocates tightening the border, among other things. But the group’s founder, Barbara Coe, said she did not know the person who signed the letter -- “Sergio Ramirez” -- and that she did not authorize it and was unaware of anyone in her group who might have.
Coe said she was questioned Wednesday for several hours by two investigators from the attorney general’s office.
Investigators “asked if I knew Loretta Sanchez,” Coe said. “I said I know of her. I told them it’s been a tried and failed relationship.”
The letter’s assertion that immigrants can’t vote is untrue, because immigrants who become naturalized citizens can register to vote. An undocumented immigrant who voted could be subject to deportation and jail, but the letter’s assertion that the state had developed a computer system that would make it easy to track down immigrants and illegal residents is also false.
A wide swath of public officials have decried the letter. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called them “a despicable act of political intimidation and a hate crime.” Scott Baugh, chairman of the Orange County Republican Party, said: “The letter was grotesque and obnoxious, and, if it’s a crime, the offender should be prosecuted.”
Frank Barbaro, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, said Wednesday he had asked Kelley to send a letter to the original recipients telling them to disregard the previous one. “I have never seen such a backlash,” Barbaro said. “This is the stupidest thing I have ever seen.”
Times staff writer Mai Tran contributed to this report.