O.C. candidate is cleared in immigrant letter furor
Charges will not be filed against a former Orange County congressional candidate whose campaign mailed letters warning immigrants against voting, the state attorney general’s office said Wednesday.
“We looked closely at voter intimidation statutes but couldn’t find any criminal intent,” Gareth Lacy, a spokesman for the office, said of the letters sent by Republican Tan Nguyen’s staff three weeks before November’s election, in which he failed to unseat Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana). “It was offensive,” Lacy said of the letters, but there was no “criminal intent to intimidate lawful voters.”
Neither Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant, nor Sanchez could be reached for comment.
Gene Iredale, a lawyer who represented Nguyen in the case, said he was not surprised by Wednesday’s outcome. “While it is clear that voter intimidation is absolutely wrong,” he said, “in this case I think there was confusion in the translation.
“It wasn’t intended to intimidate people from voting, but designed to say that noncitizens may not vote,” he said. “While it is an appropriate thing for the government to make sure that voter intimidation does not occur, it is equally true that ineligible voters should not violate the law.”
The controversy stemmed from the October 2006 mailing by Nguyen’s campaign of 14,000 letters to Democratic voters with Spanish surnames born outside the United States advising them in Spanish that “if your residence in this country is illegal or if you are an immigrant, a vote in a federal election is a crime that can result in imprisonment or you will be deported for voting without the right to do so.”
Democrats, and some Republicans, immediately seized on the incident as an example of racially tainted voter intimidation, even staging a rally in Santa Ana decrying what they described as the Republican Party’s “culture of intimidation.”
Nguyen and his supporters, however, called it a “misunderstanding” brought about by a faulty translation of the Spanish word emigrado, or “immigrant,” which they said does not refer to U.S. citizens. The word, Nguyen’s lawyer said at the time, applies only to immigrants with legal status but no citizenship.
On Wednesday, the attorney general’s office appeared to share that interpretation.
Concluding a seven-month investigation, Senior Assistant Atty. Gen. Gary Schons, who had overseen the case from his office in San Diego, said the letter had originally been drafted in English by a member of Nguyen’s campaign, correctly using the term “green-card holder” to identify those not allowed to vote.
The letter, he said, was then translated into Spanish by a second person who, believing that the term would not be understood by Latinos, changed it to emigrado, which he took to mean a noncitizen immigrant.
“Our investigation was not focused exclusively on the letter,” Schons said, “but on whether there was an intent to use the letter, regardless of its precise language, to intimidate lawful voters. We found no such evidence. To the contrary, there was evidence that the campaign was concerned about illegally registered voters.”
The entire case file, he said, has been copied and forwarded to the voting section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division for further review.
Times staff writer Christine Hanley contributed to this report.