GARDEN GROVE, Calif. – Orange County Republican leaders on Thursday called for the withdrawal of a GOP congressional candidate they believe sent a letter threatening Hispanic immigrant voters with arrest.
Tan D. Nguyen denied knowing anything about the letter in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press but said he fired a campaign staffer who may have been responsible for it.
County Republican Chairman Scott Baugh, however, said that after speaking with state investigators and the company that distributed the mailer, he believes Nguyen had direct knowledge of "obnoxious and reprehensible" letter. He told the AP that the party's executive committee voted unanimously to urge Nguyen to drop out of the race against Democratic U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez.
"I learned information that allows me to draw the conclusion that not only was Mr. Nguyen's campaign involved in this, but that Mr. Nguyen was personally involved in expediting the mailer," Baugh said in a telephone interview.
State and federal officials were investigating the letter, which was written in Spanish and mailed to an estimated 14,000 Democratic voters in central Orange County. It warns, "You are advised that if your residence in this country is illegal or you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that could result in jail time."
Immigrants who are adult naturalized citizens are eligible to vote.
Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant whose opposition to illegal immigration has figured heavily in his underdog campaign, was not immediately available to react to the committee's vote. A staffer at his campaign headquarters said he was meeting with investigators.
Earlier Thursday, he said in an interview, "I did not do this. I did not approve of any letter."
Nguyen said he has fired an employee in his office who he believes might have used his campaign's voter database to send the letter without his knowledge. He said he was cooperating with authorities and planned to continue his campaign.
"I will do whatever I can do to encourage all citizens in this district to vote," he said.
Orange County is an immigration battleground. One founder of the Minuteman civilian border patrol group ran for Congress here and cities have debated issues such as the value of public centers for day laborers and the use of local police to arrest illegal immigrants.
Complaints about the letters this week prompted a state probe, and a spokesman for California's attorney general said investigators had been questioning people in Orange County. U.S. Justice Department spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson said the department's civil rights division was investigating in coordination with the state attorney general's office.
Numerous political leaders denounced the letter, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"If it is proven that a candidate was responsible for this action, that candidate is clearly not fit to serve the people of California and should withdraw immediately from his or her race," California GOP Chairman Duf Sundheim said in a statement.
In an interview Thursday morning, Sanchez said she had never spoken to Nguyen because her campaign didn't see him as a threat to her re-election.
"If it is in fact this guy (who sent the letter), the most disgusting and saddest thing about it is that it comes from another immigrant," said Sanchez, a congresswoman born in the U.S. to Mexican parents whose 1996 election signaled Orange County's increasing diversification. "These communities have spent years trying to get naturalized immigrants to vote."
Nguyen's campaign Web site says he was born in 1973 in Vietnam, where his family fled the communist regime.
In 2004, he unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary to challenge GOP Rep. Dana Rohrabacher in a heavily Republican coastal district. He later changed his party affiliation and declared his bid to upset Sanchez.
State attorney general spokesman Nathan Barankin said he did not know how long the investigation would take, but did say that investigators "have identified where we believe the mailing list was obtained."
The owner of Huntington Beach-based Mailing Pros, Christopher West, said he did not know any laws were being broken when his company sent the mailer. "It was in Spanish, and I don't read Spanish," he said.
West said he gave investigators the name of the person who hired him, but declined to provide that name in an interview.
The letterhead of the mailing resembles that of an anti-illegal immigration group, the Huntington Beach-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform. The group's leader, Barbara Coe, said she told investigators Wednesday that her group didn't authorize the letter and that she didn't know who sent it.
"The letterhead was altered, and I've never heard of any Sergio Ramirez," the name signed to the letter, Coe said.
This is not the county's first dispute over alleged intimidation of Hispanic voters. In 1988, Republican Assembly candidate Curt Pringle posted uniformed "security guards" at 20 predominantly Hispanic voting places in Orange County.
Republicans said the guards were stationed to prevent noncitizens from casting ballots. Pringle and the county GOP paid $400,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit alleging intimidation of Hispanic voters.