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  •   Dornan Challenge to Sanchez Rejected

    By Guy Gugliotta
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, February 5, 1998; Page A046

    A Republican-led task force formally dismissed a vote fraud challenge to the election of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) yesterday, ending a 14-month investigation denounced by Democrats as a "witch hunt" designed to frighten Latino voters and keep them away from the polls.

    Former representative Robert K. Dornan (R-Calif.), who filed the complaint, refused to concede defeat, blamed "3,000 non-Americans for voting me out of office," promised that someone from his family would run for the Orange County seat in November, and left open the possibility he may run for senator.

    Sanchez brought tears to the eyes of some of the 40 Democratic colleagues gathered at a victory celebration when she asserted that her success showed Orange County supporters that "you can prevail" when "you stand up and fight."

    The task force of two Republicans and one Democrat recommended dismissal of Dornan's complaint after lead GOP investigator John Kelliher reported that his staff could find only 748 tainted votes, more than 200 short of Sanchez's 979-vote victory margin. Democratic investigators noted that it was impossible to tell for whom the tainted ballots were cast.

    The Committee on House Oversight then approved the task force finding by 8 to 1 and sent it to the floor, a virtual guarantee that the full House will pass the measure, probably next week.

    The task force finding put a formal end to a tumultuous affair with implications that went far beyond the simple question of whether Sanchez or Dornan had won the right to represent a suburban slice of Orange County. The district has a burgeoning immigrant population that has transformed a onetime Republican stronghold into an iffy swing district trending toward the Democrats.

    Dornan, a fiery conservative whose intemperate remarks often landed him in trouble during nine terms in Congress, charged in the aftermath of the 1996 election that he lost to Sanchez, a Latina businesswoman, because of a "criminal conspiracy" of tainted votes by illegal immigrants.

    And for more than a year he repeated the charges, loudly and often. One altercation with Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) in the chamber last fall finally prompted the House to deny Dornan access to the floor as a former member. He returned to the chamber briefly yesterday.

    As a result of Dornan's challenge the House Republican leadership formed the task force in early 1997 and launched a complicated review, comparing Orange County voter registration rolls with lists obtained from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

    The Orange County district attorney also began a fraud investigation to determine whether the community organization Hermandad Mexicana Nacional deliberately set out to register illegal immigrants and send them to the polls. In December, a grand jury refused to indict anyone.

    Democrats capitalized on the affair in a nationwide public relations campaign denouncing Republicans for insensitivity bordering on racism. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee incorporated the Sanchez case into its national efforts to woo Latinos to the party's cause. Task Force chairman Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), a quiet-spoken former college professor, denied yesterday that there was any attempt to intimidate Latinos, and said "I frankly object very strongly" to charges that the investigation was "racist, sexist, et cetera."

    Kelliher described in painstaking detail how the task force winnowed the list of possible bad votes from an original total of 7,841, a process that earned an acknowledgment from Dornan, who attended the task force meeting, that "I was not betrayed."

    But Dornan still had plenty to say, claiming that illegal immigrants had defeated him, and that "Sanchez, in her heart of hearts, knows it." He suggested he might become a journalist or a talk show host, or challenge Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) or try to win back his old seat. He guaranteed that "a Dornan" would run against Sanchez. Daughter Terri, who accompanied him, said he would make his decision after "a family meeting."

    Exultant Democrats, meanwhile, were surrounded by orange and white balloons as they cheered Sanchez and condemned Republicans for conducting what Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.) called a "witch hunt" against Latinos "to discourage them from voting again."

    But they weren't discouraged, said Menendez, a Cuban American, and Sanchez's triumph showed that when Hispanics "stick together, there is nothing that we cannot do."

    And after Republicans "have been beaten to a pulp" over their effort to "prevent people not born in this country from taking control over their own political future," noted Democratic Caucus Chairman Vic Fazio (Calif.). "We look forward to Bob Dornan making one last run for Congress. We will blow him away," Fazio said.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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