GARDEN GROVE, Calif. – For two days, a Republican congressional candidate had promised to explain how a threatening letter was sent by his campaign without his knowledge to thousands of Hispanic immigrant voters. As about 200 people gathered Friday in front of his campaign headquarters seeking answers, Tan D. Nguyen was a no-show at his own news conference. Instead, 10 uniformed California Department of Justice police officers arrived with a search warrant and pounded on the glass of Nguyen's storefront headquarters.
Agents spent two hours sifting through cabinets, boxes and computers. They left carrying several boxes and plastic bags of evidence.
Hours later, they searched a home in nearby Anaheim listed as belonging to one of Nguyen's staffers, emerging with a computer hard drive and a small box. Nguyen's neighbors in a gated community in Santa Ana said law enforcement officers also spent several hours searching his home.
Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant trying to unseat a popular Democratic incumbent, has acknowledged his campaign sent the letter, which wrongly said immigrants could be jailed if they voted. He blamed an unidentified staffer whom he said he has fired.
Nguyen has resisted calls from leaders in his own party to quit the race, saying he did not approve the letter and did not know about it.
Many mulling around his office Friday were supporters.
"He's the No. 1 man because his No. 1 issue is kicking out all the illegals," said Ernie Sqarlata, 86.
State and federal officials have been investigating the mailing for possible violations of election or civil rights law. It is illegal to use threats to try to dissuade anyone from voting.
The letter, written in Spanish, was mailed to an estimated 14,000 Democratic voters in 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."
In fact, immigrants who are adult naturalized citizens are eligible to vote. Secretary of State Bruce McPherson said Friday his office will send letters to homes that received the mailing to clarify voters' rights.
Nguyen's attorney, David Wiechert, cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
"A search doesn't mean the person whose office is being searched is guilty," said Wiechert, standing outside Nguyen's office. "This is a political firestorm of high-ranking Republicans and Democrats speculating about an investigation they have no knowledge of."
Orange County Republican Chairman Scott Baugh has said that after speaking with state investigators and the company that distributed the mailing, he believes Nguyen expedited the "obnoxious and reprehensible" letter. The party's executive committee voted unanimously to urge Nguyen to drop out, he said.
State Democratic Chairman Art Torres said party leaders were planning a rally for Orange County on Tuesday. "It's a hate crime as far as we are concerned," Torres said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said he planned to visit the country and meet with Hispanic leaders Saturday.
Phil Angelides, the Democratic candidate for governor, said: "They've got a real problem. They've got to clean it up because it's not good for California."
Illegal immigration has been a centerpiece of Nguyen's campaign to oust Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a five-term congresswoman.
Nguyen 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. He later changed his party affiliation and declared his bid to upset Sanchez.
On Friday, Hispanic and Vietnamese leaders joined the chorus condemning the letter, saying it should not become a wedge that drives their communities apart.
"This letter reminds us of what we were running away from in Vietnam, where people can't vote the way they want," said Xuyen Dong, who heads the Orange County chapter of the Vietnamese Professional Society.