Bernard Patrick Roberts could not understand what was so important that he had to be dragged out to Vernon to testify on a witness stand just so he could answer questions before a former California state judge about the his Arizona driver’s license, which he only uses to operate a golf cart.
Roberts lost much of his hearing while on a World War II mission, and the lawyers had to shout most of their questions to him. It hardly seemed worth the trouble. “I’m 90 years old. It’s hard enough getting out of bed in the morning… what the hell am I doing here?” he wanted to know.
Lea esta nota EN ESPAÑOL: Se Inician los Testimonios en las Audiencias de Fraude Electoral en Vernon 
Complete with opposing counsels, a court reporter, and a former judge, Vernon’s quasi-judicial hearing into the local business chamber’s allegations of voter fraud will determine who ultimately wins a city council seat.
“There are some people for whom this is a little more important, so if you’ll just humor us…” said Fred Woocher, an attorney for the Vernon Chamber of Commerce.
“I’ve already been here for two hours,” said Roberts.
Though ill-tempered at times, Roberts’ testimony turned out to be an unexpected help to the chamber’s cause. He is listed on the city’s voter registration rolls, and at least on paper, he appears to have voted in the June 4 election. But during his testimony he did not even try to pretend he lived in Vernon, stating bluntly that he lives in Surprise, Arizona.
“I don’t live here” in Vernon, he said. When he is in Vernon, he is visiting his grandson who lives in a light blue, three-bedroom house, rented under his son Dennis Roberts’ name.
The declaration could possibly help to invalidate at least one of the votes cast June 4 in favor of city council candidate Reno Bellamy, but at least three more votes would need to be invalidated before Bellamy’s win turns to a loss.
The Los Angeles county’s tally for the vote is 34-30 in favor of Bellamy, but the chamber believes ten votes cast for Bellamy were fraudulent, which they say would mean Luz Martinez, the candidate they backed, is the real winner.
A ruling on the validity of the ballots being challenged would ultimately be up to Debra Wong Yang, an attorney and former judge hired by the city to serve as hearing officer in the proceedings. When the county refused to review the Vernon business chamber’s challenges, the city of Vernon, which as a charter city can determine many of its own rules, set up the hearing process to review evidence gathered by the chamber’s attorneys and private investigators.
Roberts along with several more witnesses were issued subpoenas last week to appear at Vernon city hall where the first two days of the hearing were held.
In the first two days of the hearings, voters whose signatures and names appear on the contested ballots took to the witness stand, as well as watchful neighbors and private investigators reporting back on their findings after hunting down the whereabouts of the voters suspected of residing outside of Vernon.
Bellamy, who has filed a lawsuit against the city for convening the hearings, watched Monday’s proceeding from the sidelines. He characterized the hearings as a sham. “They should be pursuing this in a real court. This is a fake court,” he said.
His attorney Joseph C. Maher, II echoed the same. “We should not even be participating in this process,” he said. A superior court judge ordered them to take part in the city’s hearing process before they could continue with the lawsuit.
Bob Stern, the former head of the Center for Governmental Studies who currently works with John Van de Kamp’s independent ethics team monitoring Vernon, says he has not seen any other cities holding these types of municipal election contest hearings, but as a charter city, “they are able to do this” and the courts “give great leeway” to cities like Vernon to come up with its own rules as long as they do not contradict with the state constitution or other higher law.
Legal challenges aside, the hearings lent faces to many of the challenged voters known only by the names listed on the voter registration rolls, and if the testimonies are to be believed, seems to give a rare peek into Vernon’s small town life and the circumstances that led them to the city, which has just 75 registered voters.
Glenn Davis Gulla, one of six brothers who claim to live in a two-bedroom apartment in Vernon, said neighbors rarely see him because he likes to keep to himself. In particular, he tries to stay out of the path of Councilman Mike McCormick who likes to “talk and talk and talk.”
Many of those who took the stand to defend their votes described lifestyles that seemed to lean toward nomadic, always emphasizing that they would ultimately return to Vernon. Gulla and his brothers drive hundreds of miles to stock up soda vending machines all over the southland, often stopping off to rest at a Lucerne Valley house located over a hundred miles away from Vernon. They spend days at a time rehabilitating the house, which they say is owned by another brother who lives in another part of the country.
The witnesses also professed to going through hardships. Dean, another one of the Gulla brothers, apparently lost a ranch in Winchester six years ago, and the Vernon house is the only place left for him to go. Meanwhile Roberts’ son Dennis says he takes care of his father in Arizona “24/7” and does not have very much income, getting most of it from playing golf and doing other odd jobs. His fulltime job is taking care of his father, which necessitates him being in Arizona. “Don’t I have the legal right [to vote]?” Roberts lamented on the stand.
The younger Roberts says his roots are in Vernon, because his children live in the Los Angeles area. “I’m in Vernon all the time,” he said.
When the challenged voters were asked why they would choose to live in Vernon, they appeared surprised by the question. Vernon’s unbelievably cheap rents, well below market rate in the Los Angeles area, even after a recent increase, was the main reason cited.
Many also seemed to have connections with major local officials and figures. Roberts said he played golf with Curtis Fresch, a brother of the late former Vernon city attorney Eric Fresch whose high public employee salary raised eyebrows and brought scrutiny to the city. Dean Gulla worked at a carwash owned by Councilman Richard Maisano, though that ended badly when he ran into legal trouble with the carwash’s owner.
Bellamy thinks the people who voted for him are being targeted unfairly. “Many people have double residence, dual residence, difference places. There’s no law against that,” he said.
Maher meanwhile derided some of the evidence presented by the chamber as “nosy neighbor” testimony, and said the only reason the hearing is being held by the city, rather than being taken to the Superior Court, is because they know they cannot win there.
Woocher says some of the witnesses may not have been aware that their testimony was self-incriminating, while there are others whom “we don’t believe testified truthfully and whose testimony was inconsistent with their own documentation.”
He says they are trying to pin the voters on the addresses they use on vehicle and other types of registrations. Some of the voters being questioned provided various reasons for why some of the addresses on their registration documents are located outside of Vernon. “There are certain documents we’ve been referring to that the law gives importance to, like registration with the Department of Motor Vehicles… that creates presumptions that you live in the place you registered,” said Woocher.
More witnesses are expected to take the stand when the hearing reconvenes Sept. 30.