Voters in Bell tell of possible fraud


As Los Angeles prosecutors investigate potential voter fraud in Bell, several residents have told The Times that city officials pressed them to fill out absentee ballots in a way that election experts say may have violated state law.

Four voters said city officials walked door-to-door encouraging them to fill out absentee ballots. In one case, a woman said she signed papers she believed were election paperwork. She never filed an absentee ballot. But when she went to the polls on election day, records showed that she had voted absentee.

Two other voters said that two council members came to their homes urging them to fill out absentee ballots. The voters did — and a few weeks later the council members collected the ballots, saying that they would personally submit them, according to the voters.

The accounts describe conduct that would violate California election laws, which have strict rules about how absentee ballots are handled. The son of one of the voters interviewed said he and his mother had reported the incident to Los Angeles County prosecutors.

Los Angeles attorney Fred Woocher, an expert on California election law, said absentee voters must mail the ballot — or personally bring it to the registrar’s office or their polling place.

The state election code says voters must return absentee ballots themselves unless they are disabled or ill, in which case only family members or people living in the same household may return them.

How absentee ballots are handled has been an issue in several Southern California elections in recent years, leading in at least one case to the overturning of election results and in other cases to votes being thrown out.

The potential for fraud in Bell is heightened because of how few people vote in the working-class, immigrant town of 40,000. Fewer than 400 voters cast ballots in a 2005 special election that cleared the way for City Council members to significantly increase their salaries, for example. More than half were absentee ballots. The high salaries paid to top administrators — including nearly $800,000 for the former city manager — have sparked widespread outrage.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office has not offered details of its election investigation, but Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said last week that the probe is

centering on absentee ballots.

Over the last two weeks, The Times canvassed neighborhoods in Bell, interviewing people who had cast absentee ballots in the last few elections.

Bell resident Lennie Rose Munozvilla said that in 2009, Mayor Oscar Hernandez and Councilman Luis Artiga stopped by her house. They were campaigning for Artiga and Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo, who were up for reelection that year.

She said the two men reminded Munozvilla, a devout Christian, that Artiga was pastor of Bell Community Church. They left behind absentee ballots for her and her husband. Hernandez and Artiga said they would pick up the ballots in a few days.

Munozvilla remembered marking her votes for the incumbents. Artiga and Hernandez returned the next week to pick up the ballots, she said.

Artiga and Jacobo were reelected by large margins.

A 42-year-old Bell woman, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Times that a Bell police officer and two other people came to her door in 2007 before a City Council election. The officer, she said, told her she should support Hernandez and Councilman Victor Bello and asked her to sign a form. She agreed to sign even though she said she was not sure exactly what the form said.

A few weeks later, when she and her husband went to cast their ballots on election day, poll workers told her she had already voted absentee. The poll worker told her the vote could be canceled, and she voted again.

The woman’s son said that earlier this year they had filed a complaint with the district attorney in which they identified the police officer involved as Hector Camacho.

Camacho declined to comment.

In an interview, Artiga said Camacho, whom he had known for 20 years, volunteered for his campaign. But he said he did not know if Camacho or others collected ballots on his behalf.

Artiga said he did visit people’s homes before the 2009 election to garner support. In some cases, senior citizens or handicapped people told him they would not be able to make it to the polls, so he asked them to fill out a request for an absentee ballot, he said. He stressed that he never collected absentee ballots from anyone.

Jacobo said she was sick with pneumonia during most of the 2009 campaign and seldom got out and saw no evidence of voter fraud.

She said that at one point, “I was out walking, campaigning, talking to people in their homes just like every candidate does and urging people who didn’t think they could go out to vote there was that option of voting absentee.”

One Bell resident, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, said he worked with Camacho in 2009 on the election.

The man said he and others were given lists of absentee voters, which are public records.

“Our objective was to retrieve [absentee ballots], and if they were not filled out, instruct them how to fill it out, and if not, fill it out for them,” he said.

The group members were also supplied with blank ballots, he said. “If they didn’t have [their absentee ballot], ‘By the way, we have some you can fill out.’ ”

The man, who also has provided his account to a district attorney’s investigator, said the group members would knock on doors and when people answered, they would announce, “We’re here from the city of Bell. We’re picking up ballots. If you haven’t , we can help you fill it out.”

The state election code prohibits third parties from collecting absentee ballots.

Lee Sherard, an 80-year-old retired truck driver, said he remembered that Hernandez and Artiga showed up at his trailer before the 2009 election.

Sherard said they offered to mail in an absentee ballot application for him and then pick up the completed ballot from him.

The ballot arrived a few days later. He said he voted for Nestor Valencia, one of the dissident challengers.

Sherard mailed the ballot himself. Hernandez and Artiga showed up a few days later.

When Sherard told them he had already mailed his ballot, he said Artiga seemed to become irritated.

“I told you we’d pick it up, he said, very sharp,” Sherard recalled.

Artiga denies he campaigned with Hernandez. Hernandez declined to comment.

Another account of possible election fraud comes from a retired Bell police sergeant who last month filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit. In a police report attached to his complaint, he listed the names of 19 voters who he said were either dead or living in Lebanon at the time that their votes were cast. Bell has a small Lebanese community.

Improper handling of absentee ballots was an issue in the 1996 congressional election battle between Robert Dornan and Loretta Sanchez in Orange County.

In that case, the Orange County registrar invalidated dozens of ballots because they were not returned in person by the voter.

Times staff writers Sam Quinones and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.