The lid is (finally) off:
"Official" San Francisco scrambles for cover

Copyright: Daily Journal /California's Law Journal, 1997
All rights reserved. For educational purposes only.


National Watchdog Enlists Lawyer Charles Bell in 49ers Stadium Inquiry

Daily Journal, September 5, 1997

ANOTHER LOOK - Sacramento attorney Charles H. Bell Jr, [above] has been retained by Voting Integrity Project to investigate the May vote on the 49ers football stadium referendum that was ratified by a slim vote. [At right] Carmen Policy, president of the 49ers, former San Francisco mayor Frank Jordan; 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo; and Mayor Willie Brown prepare for congratulations all around just before election that is now being contested.

By John Roemer
Daily Journal Staff Writer

In a new twist the growing investigation of alleged voter fraud in the June 3 San Francisco referendum on the new football stadium, a national watchdog group has hired a California lawyer to direct a probe of 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo.

The group, Voting Integrity Project, said Wednesday it has retained Sacramento attorney Charles H. Bell Jr. as its representative in the San Francisco investigation. VIP, which is described as having a conservative political bent, said it employs retired FBI agents to check claims of ballot wrongdoing.

Numerous complaints surrounding the San Francisco vote are also being investigated by local, state and federal agencies.

VIP drew parallels between reports of election-day irregularities in San Francisco and in a November 1996 election in Louisiana. in which a U.S. Senate race and gambling issues were on the ballot. DeBartolo is part owner of a casino and a racetrack in Louisiana, a VIP spokeswoman said.

Evidence of voter intimidation, campaigning inside polling many similar abuses were found in the Louisiana election, especially in New Orleans, she said.

"Perhaps the similarities to the New Orleans case are mere coincidence," said the spokeswoman, adding, "Perhaps it is also mere coincidence that the San Francisco 49rs are owned by Edward DeBartolo Jr., part owner of Hollywood Riverboat Casino" in Louisiana.

DeBartolo did not return calls requesting comment. Mayor Willie Brown is aware of the VIP claims and calls them "ridiculous," a spokeswoman said. The DeBartolo allegations are among a wide range of voter complaints about the June 3 balloting, in which Measure D, the stadium bond issue, prevailed by 1,522 votes.

Reflecting the high stakes nature of the campaign, the various probes of the allegations appear tangled in conflicting interests.

"DeBartolo was involved in Louisiana and California," said a Richmond, VA, lawyer on the VIP board of directors, Patrick McSweeney. "I want to be circumspect until our investigations are complete, but there was a great deal of similarity in the practices employed by the winning campaigns in both states.

McSweeney, a partner in Richmond's Mcsweeney Bartch & Crump, is a former chairman of the Virginia Republican Party and a backer of the Oliver North senate campaign.

VIP is "clearly a right-wing organization," according to a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. The professor, Larry Sabato, is the author of "Dirty Little Secrets: The Persistence of Corruption in American Politics," a 1996 book that devotes a lengthy chapter to political abuses in California.

Despite VIP's ties to the right, Sabato said ,the group may be onto something in its investigation of the San Francisco balloting. Alluding to reports by the San Francisco Chronicle that names of 744 deceased persons may have been used to mark fraudulent ballots, Sabato observed: "Dead men tell no tales, but they definitely do vote. California has one of the least impressive voter registration and maintenance records in the United States."

Thursday; the San Francisco Examiner put the number of votes cast in the name of dead residents at nine.

Bell, the Sacramento attorney reportedly retained by VIP did not return calls requesting comment.

It wasn't easy finding a lawyer willing to represent VIP according to Deborah Phillips of Alexandria, Va., the group's president . Phillips said she phoned virtually every election-law attorney in San Francisco, only to be told each was already retained by the other side.

"The mayor co-opted all of them," she said. "Eventually, we had to look out of town."

Phillips' assertion was echoed by one prominent local election specialist who asked for anonymity, then said:

"A lot of us were working for the [pro-stadium] parties in other capacities already. Besides, every attorney in town has been intimidated by the mayor, the 49rs or their campaign manager [Jack Davis]."

The stadium vote was major challenge for Mayor Brown, who employed his political talent to bring the issue from a loser in early polling to a cliffhanger win.

Brown put his prestige behind DeBartolo's plan to combine a new football venue with a shopping mall in a half billion dollar project, which was billed as a job creation opportunity for the working class Hunters Point District.

The administration has denied any improprieties.

"We are absolutely confident that claims by the anti-stadium people are entirely bogus," mayoral spokeswoman Candace Bender said.

Beyond the "dead man voting" charges are claims that the election was structured to intimidate anti-stadium voters .

When state Sen. Quentin Kopp arrived at his polling place, for example, he was surprised at the ballot he was handed.

"I noticed immediately there was no secrecy envelope in which to enclose my ballot," Kopp, an attorney and an independent from San Francisco, said Wednesday "I complained to the registrar of voters. This election was odiferous."

How Kopp voted was hardly a secret, given his outspoken opposition to the stadium plan. But the principle of voter privacy is among a myriad alleged violations of the state elections cod and other statutes.

Secrecy envelopes, into which completed ballots are slipped by the voter to avoid the prying eyes of others, were not used for cost reasons, according to a spokesman for the director of elections.

In normal elections, the length and numerical coding used on ballots afford privacy~ The June 3 ballot, by con contrast, contained only six yes or no measures, making it easy for bystanders to see how voters punched holes next to their choices.

Like Kopp, a number of private citizens charge the election failed the smell test.

"The two poll workers at my site were wearing red and gold clothes" contrary to rules governing electioneering at the polling place, said one voter in a declaration filed with the San Francisco Ethics Commission and the Secretary of State. "As I moved to put my ballot in the box, a poll worker snatched it out of my hand and read it. I snatched it back and put it in the box. I left, feeling very uneasy about the process."

Although at least three official investigations are under way as a result of the complaints, possible conflicts of interest exist in each.

The Ethics Commission will proceed after the complaint it received from stadium opponents is reviewed by the city attorney and the district attorney, according to acting executive director Ginny Vida. But members of the Brown administration - including both City Attorney Louise Renne and District Attorney Terence Hallinan - were strong political backers of the stadium proposal, calling their objectivity into question.

Renne spokesman Mark Slavin, a deputy city attorney, insisted that all complaints forwarded from the Ethics Commission are handled "in a scrupulously impartial manner," though he declined specifically to discuss the June 3 election probe, citing confidentiality requirements of the City Charter.

Hallinan said he had declined to investigate the matter and instead sent results of a voting audit to the California secretary of state's election fraud unit.

"I just thought people would put more trust [in the investigation] if it was sent out of town," said Hallinan, who denied the move stemmed from his support for the stadium. "I can feel for the frustration of the people who lost - you know, I lost an election for the Board of Supervisors to Wendy Nelder on a recount back in 1980. Nobody wants to think they didn't lose fair and square.

Hallinan said director of elections Germaine Wong found enough questionable signatures in selected precincts to make the June 3 election results suspect, "If you extrapolate those problem signatures citywide, there could be enough to change the vote," he said.

Wong strongly denied Hallinan's interpretation of her investigation. "I didn't find a thing," she said. "He's really helping the conspiracy theorists here. He ought to get some facts before he opens his mouth."

An attorney retained by the Committee to Stop the Giveaway, an anti-stadium group, said information compiled by his clients shows there were numerous violations of the elections code.

"The investigations in process should seek to verify the accuracy of the evidence" San Francisco sole practitioner William Cohn said.

At the California secretary of state's office in Sacramento, chief counsel James Sweeney confirmed that "a multi-faceted investigation into numerous allegations regarding the June 3 election" is under way. "We're actively looking into it," Sweeney said if we find sufficient evidence of illegal voting, the attorney general may prosecute. "The state's share of the investigation is complicated by Secretary of State Bill Jones' long political antagonism to Mayor Brown, dating from the days when Jones was a Republican assemblyman from Fresno who chafed under Brown's iron rule as Assembly Speaker.

"That could have been a problem," conceded Jones spokesman Alfred Charles. "But Secretary Jones took no position on the stadium, and this is not an investigation of the mayor."

Sweeney, Jones' chief counsel, said voter fraud charges arise around the state from time to time," but that the secretary of state has gotten involved only since 1995, when Jones inaugurated a unit to track cases.

At the federal level, the investigation centers on the early polling places set up on May 31at four Housing Authority sites in the Bay view-Hunters Point district and elsewhere near the Candlestick Point stadium site.

Anti-stadium advocates have forwarded to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development a copy of a check for $2,000 from the Housing Authority to the Director of elections to pay for the early voting locations.

Since the Housing Authority is controlled and funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, officials are looking into charges that Federal dollars were used to influence a local election.

The potential conflict: HUD regional director Art Agnos, a former San Francisco mayor, supported the stadium mall.

Agnos spokesman Larry Bush and HUD general counsel David Sutton said Agnos is insulated from the probe. "The HUD inspector general is conducting the investigation, and he reports only to Washington," Sutton said. "It has nothing to do with Mr. Agnos."

Attorney Richard W. Carpeneti of San Francisco's Carpeneti & Carpeneti is a former president of the Housing Commission. In an interview; he termed the early voting "a terrible thing they did just to get pro-stadium votes."

"If they had opened polling places all around the city for early voting, it would have been fine, said Carpeneti, who added he voted for the stadium himself "But to involve the Housing Authority was really to take advantage of some of our residents. I know politics is cynical, but this was illegal and improper. It was a sham. I would have expected this in Chicago in the 1920s."

The idea of voting fraud as a problem of the distant past may be changing, according to UCLA law School Professor Daniel H. Lowenstein, author of the 1995 case-book "Election law."

"I may have to get further into the field of vote fraud," he said. "If some polls were opened early in San Francisco, you have to ask why. If there were no secrecy envelopes, that sounds very peculiar. The secret ballot is regarded by most Americans as fundamental. Was someone incompetent so there were not enough envelopes, or was there a more sinister reason?"

Fraud in an election has to be done on a large scale, observed Lowenstein, "otherwise, it's meaningless."

That fact offers hope, he said. "If it's large and systematic it's not going to be kept quiet forever."

If you saw anything suspicious or unusual on election day (June 3, 1997) in San Francisco, please send us your report. We're still collecting evidence.

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