SANTA ANA ? Two Santa Ana school trustees Wednesday reconsidered spending district funds to investigate possible fraud by signature collectors seeking the recall of Nativo Lopez after learning prosecutors found no evidence to support the claim.
On Tuesday night, the Santa Ana Unified board voted, 3-1, to examine 400 random petition signatures to determine the merit of allegations that voters were misled into signing recall petitions. They didn’t know that earlier Tuesday, senior Deputy District Attorney Tom Crofoot had mailed a letter to Superintendent Al Mijares informing him that he found no violations of election law based on his review of allegations from residents. Recall proponents want to remove Lopez from the board, saying he refuses to teach students English as required by law. Supporters credit Lopez with improving test scores. Two weeks ago, the Orange County Registrar of Voters Office certified 9,685 signatures collected, about 1,000 more than the amount needed to prompt a special election. Two days before, the school board hired a lawyer for guidance on holding an election and on the allegations of voter fraud.
Board members said they were unaware of Crofoot’s finding when they decided to spend up to $30,000 to randomly examine the signatures. Mijares received a faxed copy of the letter Wednesday from Crofoot.
Board members Nadia Davis and Sal Tinajero said they voted to spend the money because the district should not pay for a costly special election if it turns out signatures were collected illegally. Board President John Palacio could not be reached for comment. Member Rosemarie Avila voted no. Lopez recused himself.
“It’s basically to see if there’s enough fraud out there that would affect our duty to use public funds,” Davis said. “If I had known those were the DA’s findings, it’s our duty to pay for the election.”
Tinajero said he would look into the letter from Crofoot and consider calling off the survey of petitions.
State election code prohibits petition gatherers from misrepresenting the purpose or contents of a petition to potential signers. The district, for instance, received reports that petition collectors claimed they were working to help Assemblyman Lou Correa, D-Anaheim.
Mijares said the board’s action would require going to court to seek permission to examine the sealed recall petitions. From there, an investigator could contact petition signers to determine whether they were deceived.
Mark Petracca, a political-science professor at the University of California, Irvine, said it’s tough to prove that voters were lied to because it’s generally one person’s word against another’s.
Crofoot said he received a packet of declarations from the school district that contained allegations of misrepresentation, a spitting incident and an accusation of being followed. He said neither he nor Registrar Rosalyn Lever found any proof of voter fraud. The other criminal matters had already been reported to law enforcement for investigation. Crofoot said that even if signatures from the declarations were to be disqualified, there weren’t enough to change the outcome of certification. The decisions by the school board and the DA’s Office sparked more outcry in a recall campaign in which each side has accused the other of dirty tricks and of breaking the law.
“That’s shameful,” Lopez said of the prosecutor’s finding.
Tim Whitaker, a recall organizer, said taxpayer money should not be spent to help a board member.
“It’s their typical heavy-handed tactic at thwarting the will once again of parents and taxpayers for their own self-serving interests,” Whitaker said. The board will consider setting the special election at its Oct. 22 meeting.
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