Inquiry Into Voters As Vernon Election Approaches

By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer

Vernon’s independent watchdog is looking into allegations of potential voter fraud in the weeks leading up to the April 10 city council election, in which incumbent Daniel Newmire will face off with challenger Michael Ybarra.

Lea easta nota EN ESPAÑOL: Escrutinio de Votantes de Vernon por Elección Que Aproxima

The inquiry was prompted by complaints that nine voters are registered at the same three-bedroom home, said Vernon Independent Ethics Advisor John Van de Kamp, who has a team of investigators walking the streets, interviewing voters, candidates and city council members to determine their history and voter registration status.

Information gathered will be shared with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, he said. Shiara Davila-Morales, a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, said that as of Tuesday, a criminal investigation had not been opened.

Meanwhile, the seventy or so voters in Vernon’s first city council seat election in over 20 years are being placed under a microscope.

As the individual campaigns court voters, they are also scanning voter registration logs, casting a suspicious eye on any sign of unusual activity, flagging households with a high number of registered voters, those newly registered and voters living in an unusual location. In one instance, two registered voters listed addresses that do not exist.

In a city with so few voters, “obviously votes, four or five one way or the other, could tilt the election,” said Van de Kamp.

During a city council meeting on Tuesday, members of the business chamber, which is officially endorsing Ybarra, intimated that the household in question is connected to Councilman Richard Maisano.

“What I find disturbing … that a few of these [people in the] households come from … Mr. Maisano, your car wash at the Red Carpet Car Wash…” Vernon Chamber of Commerce Director Marisa Olguin said during the meeting’s public comment period.

Hector Moreno, who leases the house on Furlong Place where nine voters are registered, is employed at a carwash run by Maisano. Moreno himself is a legal resident and cannot vote, but another person with the same last name and others at the address are registered to vote.

Maisano told EGP on Monday that two of his employees have lived in Vernon housing for years. “I think it’s just politics as far as the election and candidates … This hasn’t been an issue for three or four years,” he said.

He believes that people have been moving in and out of Moreno’s household, including one family member who moved to San Bernardino three weeks ago.

Olguin added that she has just learned about five people living in a single apartment. “I’m concerned about this. I want the housing commission to take a look at some of the processes,” she said.

Olguin then turned her attention to Newmire, saying a chamber board member saw him with Michael Montgomery, a former attorney for the city, and Curtis Fresch, who got “$300,000 a year,” she said, even though it was unclear what he did for the city. Curtis Fresch does not currently work for Vernon.

“These are people who reflect the salaries we are trying to get a handle on,” Olguin said.

Newmire and Maisano did not address Olguin’s accusations during the meeting, but Newmire told EGP after the meeting that this election is a “rare thing that’s happening in Vernon.”

“People are freaking out, questioning who those people are … we’ve all been working to find answers to all those questions,” he said.

Newmire believes Moreno moved into the home in 2008, and thinks the other people living there are members of his family and friends he invited to live there to “help them out.”

As to the chamber’s accusation that he has been hanging out with members of the “old guard,” the old, corrupt Vernon; Newmire said his relationship with Fresch goes back to when they were neighbors.

Newmire said he has criticized the city’s relationship with his former neighbor’s highly paid brother, Eric Fresch, a former city administrator, former city attorney, and now a highly paid financial consultant to the city. Just because he associates with Curtis, does not mean he also associates with Eric, Newmire said, adding the two brothers have not spoken to each other in awhile and are “on the outs.”

He added that while the chamber is attacking him and Maisano, who is up for reelection next year, no one is “questioning the other side.”

Why hasn’t anyone mentioned the three voters registered at the address for La Villa Basque, a restaurant owned by former mayor Leonis Malburg, or the two additional voters registered at his opponent’s home, he asked.

According to Devyn James, one of the voters registered at La Villa Basque, four people live in an apartment above the restaurant. James told EGP his cousin works in the restaurant, and he just moved in last week. James said he is looking forward to voting in next week’s election.

Van de Kamp said they have more to unravel in the days ahead. “We’re being careful, because we do not want to prevent someone eligible to vote from voting,” he said.

He assured the city is “moving toward a clean election, and we urge cooperation from all the citizens in this community to help us get to that point, because it’s in our interest for all concerned that this is done the right way,” he said.

Candidates should be talking about “their vision for what they want to see for Vernon in the years ahead, what their relationship to Vernon will be,” he said.

Olguin said the chamber is pleased the DA may be getting involved. “I’m very concerned, but very happy that the judicial system, the DA’s office is going to be taking care of this. It’s out of our hand. Regardless this is going to be democracy. It may be messy… but we can get past this one and go on to the next one.

Meanwhile, Sen. Kevin de Leon, whose support for the city last year helped save it from disincorporation, has taken a special interest in monitoring Vernon’s progress toward reform. He released a statement last week saying he is confident that the investigation will root out what is left of the city’s old ways.

“This is the last stand of the old guard in Vernon and if they think they can steal an election they’re badly mistaken. Old habits die hard, but this investigation demonstrates that the necessary safeguards are in place to root out corruption and fraud wherever it rears its head,” he said in a statement.

Six years ago Vernon nearly held a contested election, in which a group of people moved into a building and registered to vote soon after. The city claimed at the time that this was a plot to take over the city and rescinded the city council election nomination papers and voter registrations of the newcomers.

Several measures were subsequently adopted by the city to prevent a takeover, such as only having one council seat come up for a vote at a time, thus preventing a takeover of the city council.

The city’s former mayor, Leonis Malburg, was convicted of voter fraud in 2009, along with his wife. The courts ruled that his actual residence was in Hancock Park, rather than in Vernon.

In an earlier version of this story, Marisa Olguin was quoted as saying Curtis Fresch is receiving $300,000. Fresch’s contract with the city was terminated in 2011.

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April 5, 2012  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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