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Vernon voters questioned in probe of potential elections fraud

September 26, 2012 |  9:50 am

Debra Yang to preside over Vernon's voter fraud caseSixty-four people who voted in the Vernon City Council election in June have testified as part of an investigation into potential voter fraud.

Some of the witnesses said they were surprised when they were given subpoenas to testify and expressed irritation that they were being questioned about their commuting patterns, Facebook pages and romantic relationships.

"This is the first time I ever voted before. I didn't know it was going to be such a pain in the butt," Jason Roberts, 33, said toward the end of 30 minutes of questioning. "I won't vote again. This is crazy."

The June council race was seen as a turning point for Vernon, a city that had been dogged by corruption charges and election irregularities. It was a rare competitive campaign and officials were pushing a series of government reforms.

Candidate Reno Bellamy emerged with a 34-30 victory. But the city's Chamber of Commerce and some at City Hall had backed Bellamy's opponent, Luz Martinez, and the chamber alleges nine of the ballots cast for Bellamy came from people who didn't live in Vernon.

The Los Angeles County registrar-recorder dismissed those challenges, calling the election for Bellamy.

Vernon officials responded by changing the city's election rules, passing a law that set up the special hearing process. (Councilman William Davis even flew back to Vernon from a vacation in Italy — at taxpayer expense — to vote in favor of the ordinance.)

Vernon's city clerk has so far issued nearly 30 subpoenas, including one to the office of County Registrar Dean Logan. Logan said his office provided the records in question, but expressed some concern about the entire process.

"The line that needs to be watched carefully is when do you cross between ensuring election security and integrity … to a situation where you're interfering with a voter's opportunity to exercise their right?" he said.

Vernon is home to 1,800 businesses but only 112 residents, and critics have long argued that city leaders are able to manipulate elections by hand-picking candidates and evicting challengers. In 2006, city officials refused to count the ballots in a contested council race until a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ordered them to do so.

Bellamy and his attorney say the hearing this month is another example of Vernon's leaders taking the election process into their own hands. They point out that some of the voters who are now being scrutinized were never questioned by the city when they voted in favor of a referendum last November supported by city leaders.

City officials defend the proceedings, citing strong evidence of voter fraud. Fred MacFarlane, a city spokesman, said the council wanted a full hearing to take place on the ballot challenges. The county registrar's office had only reviewed evidence challenging the vote that had been submitted by the Chamber of Commerce.

Marguerite Leoni, a lawyer advising the city, said Vernon's jurisdiction over the matter is spelled out in its charter, which refers to the City Council as the "final judge of election results."

"I don't know how other cities would do it," Leoni said. "But this council wanted transparency and openness. We have a retired judge up there — everything is set up so it's fair."


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Photo: Vernon chose former U.S. attorney and judge Debra Yang to preside over the city's hearing on voter fraud allegations. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times