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State office admits asking sheriff for help in voter investigation

Elections, Sheriff Jon Lopey, Siskiyou County

PNP comment: The end of this article holds the truth and should be at the top. — Editor Liz Bowen

Oct. 8, 2016

By Alayna Shulman of the Redding Record Searchlight

The California Secretary of State’s Office acknowledged for the first time Friday that it asked Siskiyou County law enforcement to accompany investigators looking into alleged voter fraud — an investigation that led to a federal lawsuit from Hmong residents who said the gun-clad deputies terrified them.

Siskiyou County Sheriff Jon Lopey has insisted that was the case since the allegations came to light in early June. But before Friday, the state office hadn’t acknowledged how Lopey’s department got involved, a “cowardly and totally inappropriate” omission according to Lopey, who has complained the silence left him the target of a smear campaign that painted him as a bigot.

Sam Mahood, a spokesman for Secretary of State Alex Padilla’s office, previously had only confirmed by email to a national political reporter that the office does sometimes request local protection for its unarmed investigators, but didn’t say whether that was the case in Siskiyou County. Mahood also had declined to specify to the Record Searchlight whether the office asked for navigation and protection, and simply told reporters that Siskiyou County “recommended” deputies join the investigators. That’s something Mahood said again Friday, but with the added context that it was the state office that initiated the conversation.

The admission comes as other new details in the case have emerged through the paper’s California Public Records Act request on the case, including that an American Civil Liberties Union official knew the Secretary of State’s Office was at the helm of the June investigation but told officials there in an email she had “advised (Hmong residents) not to implicate the Secretary of State’s office in any way” when talking to the media.

Lori Shellenberger, the ACLU’s California voting rights director, now says “advised” was the wrong word to use, and that she actually just supported a call made by members of the local Hmong community.

It was, she said Friday, those residents’ “strategic decision” not to mention the office’s role in the investigation because it would scare away other Hmong voters. After all, the state office also was sending poll monitors to protect the vulnerable group from the alleged intimidation, she said.

Interviews and other emails released to the Record Searchlight this week reveal that Shellenberger did not seem to believe the state office had a role in any of the alleged intimidation that later led to the suit against the county and one Secretary of State employee.

She omitted the office’s role in the investigation from a press release and repeatedly blamed Siskiyou County alone for any of the grave psychological impacts the investigation allegedly caused.

“The people I was communicating with (at the Secretary of State’s Office) … assured me, ‘We would not (ask for armed protection),'” Shellenberger said.

When the story of alleged intimidation just before the June primary went national, Shellenberger was a leading voice condemning the sheriff. What emerged, Lopey said, was a portrait of a conservative county’s rogue lawman going on a power-trip against Hmong immigrants. Lopey has denounced that portrayal as a vicious falsehood.

Confusion in Sacramento

The case is full of contradictory accusations, including that Lopey’s deputies overstepped their protection role by warning the residents not to vote and that they brandished their weapons in an intimidating way.

As one Secretary of State employee said in an email to a friend at the state Assembly: It’s a complex case that “will take a few beers to talk about.”

Their exchange was another illuminating element found within the more than 300 emails obtained through the records request. The Record Searchlight asked for all documents that had been provided to Lopey’s attorney under his own earlier request.

The assembly employee is clearly irked at what his friend, James Schwab, has already revealed via email: Siskiyou County law enforcement officials allegedly intimidated Hmong residents by telling them they couldn’t vote just before the June election. He’s also confused: A news release linked into the email says Siskiyou County officials were helping an unnamed state agency with an investigation when the alleged intimidation happened.

“Do you know who the ‘state investigators’ are that are investigating? And […] what is Cal-Fire doing involving itself in voter registration fraud investigations?” Ethan Jones, chief consultant at the Assembly’s Elections and Redistricting Committee, writes in the June 7 email. “Lots of bad behavior at this election …”

In fact, one of those state investigators now is being accused in the suit of participating in the alleged intimidation.

The lawsuit that makes those allegations was filed by 10 Hmong residents who allege they were the direct victims of a wider case of intimidation that disenfranchised about 250 out of 360 potential voters in their community. The suit served to the county in mid-September names Lopey, Siskiyou County Elections Clerk Colleen Setzer, Secretary of State employee Alex Nishimura, Siskiyou County and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection as defendants.

Siskiyou County’s interim attorney said the county has hired outside counsel to defend the suit and is preparing a response.

Focus on Siskiyou

After claims came in that some Hmong residents were terrified by the investigation, the ACLU’s Shellenberger said she’s the one who contacted the Secretary of State’s Office and California Attorney General’s Office for help.

“When you hear that people are getting visited on their property with guns, that raises flags,” she said.

Shellenberger said she did know that the Secretary of State’s Office was involved in the investigation that generated her concern. But the ACLU’s news release on the case simply says the agency is working with the Attorney General’s Office to help deter intimidation from Siskiyou County.

She said Friday that she doesn’t remember why the office’s role was left out of the news release, but said some Hmong residents decided they shouldn’t mention the office to the media because it would scare other residents who didn’t know about the office’s involvement.

“If we go into detail and say, ‘But actually, one of those employees was here …’ that would undermine people’s security,” she said. “I would characterize it as a strategic decision” not to discuss the role of the Secretary of State investigators.

She said she also told those residents that the state poll monitors didn’t have to come if they would frighten people, and state officials themselves agreed it might not be the best idea.

“They were also concerned that, ‘Will our presence have a positive or negative effect?'” she said.

She continues to believe the real problem was with authorities in Siskiyou County.

“Yes, there was a Secretary of State investigator and the sheriff there … But among the people that I was speaking with at the time, I think there was the feeling it was the sheriff more,” she said.

Not everyone felt that way, according to the lawsuit.

One plaintiff, Jesse Vang, says in the suit that a Secretary of State investigator refused to give him his name at first, then told him he’d go to jail if he voted June 7, which left him “terrified.” Vang also said the armed deputies made him feel “particularly threatened.”

Shellenberger’s appreciation for Padilla’s office as a whole and its efforts to protect voting rights is evident in multiple emails.

“I cannot overstate the impressive response by Secretary Padilla’s team and the support provided by the Attorney General and her deputies. Their commitment to protecting the Hmong vote was unwavering,” she wrote in a June 8 email to members of the Future of California Elections, a collaboration of state organizations aimed at addressing the “unique challenges facing the State of California’s election system.”

She also said in a June 6 email to two Secretary of State employees that she told some Hmong residents if interviewed by the media to speak carefully.

“I have briefed them and let them know that the Secretary is very concerned about this and is flying in two representatives tonight and committed to getting to the bottom of this,” she wrote. “I have advised them not to implicate the Secretary of State’s office in any way.”

She said Friday that was a “poor choice of word” and she “would never advise them.”

When asked whether finding out the agency may have requested armed backup for the investigation would change her opinion on who’s to blame for the intimidation, Shellenberger dismissed the idea, but also noted that she didn’t know the answer.

“My experience (with the Secretary of State’s Office) was, as soon as I alerted them, they were very alarmed; they immediately responded. I don’t have any evidence that (they asked for protection),” she said. “I think that would be highly unusual.”

But later Friday, Mahood confirmed that “investigators reached out to the Sheriff to seek assistance in finding (the locations).” Mahood said the investigators reached out because “various parties” had told them the areas affiliated with the “suspicious” voter applications Setzer, the county clerk, had flagged were “remote, difficult to find, and posed a potential security risk.”

He didn’t say who the various parties were, but apparently Lopey wasn’t among them, as “the sheriff reaffirmed the concerns … and it was subsequently agreed that Sheriff’s personnel would escort our investigators to the sites.”

‘Uncertainty and mistrust’

Additional emails between Lopey and the Secretary of State’s Office reviewed by the Record Searchlight paint a clear picture of his dilemma as the events unfolded.

At first, Lopey doesn’t seem to suspect there will be a problem.

“Let me know if you have any issues with the (news) release,” Lopey writes in an email to a Secretary of State’s Office investigator June 3.

Then, after apparently not getting a response, Lopey carbon-copies another investigator.

“Please let me know if you have any issues with the text of the message.”

No response. Lopey writes back again after about an hour.

“Do you have any feedback for the news release?” he asks both investigators.

Still no response. Lopey waits about two hours before he pushes for approval from the state agency again.

“We are getting a lot of media inquiries. When will your agency OK this release? People already know you were here and that we assisted,” Lopey writes.

One investigator, Martin Deffee, finally gets back to Lopey about 12 hours later, the next morning.

Deffee says Secretary of State officials told him the agency “should not be mentioned in any current or future press releases.”

“It has always been the position of The Secretary of State that we do not confirm or deny any investigative activities conducted by The Secretary of State’s Investigative Services Office. Any press release naming the Secretary of State and/or its investigators could potentially affect the integrity of an investigation, the testimony of witnesses and impede investigative efforts. Thank you for your time and attention to this matter,” he writes to Lopey.

Lopey writes back that afternoon, frustrated but begrudgingly compliant.

“I personally think that the lack of transparency in these types of matters are detrimental to the image of your department and you miss the opportunity to showcase your agencies work and achievements. It is important for people to know that there are consequences for breaking the law and neither denying or affirming an investigation just fuels the fires of uncertainty and mistrust. I will remove the Secretary of State from the news release,” he writes.

Then, the news breaks. Across the country, news stories repeat the ACLU charge that Lopey’s office had intimidated would-be voters in the Hmong community — stifling the rights of immigrants who fought alongside America during the Vietnam War.

By July 26, Lopey apparently is fed up.

In an email titled “CONFIRMATION OF ASSISTANCE REQUEST,” Lopey implores Deffee to admit that he personally was in Siskiyou County and the sheriff’s office only went along to provide security.

“As you may know, I have personally received a lot of scrutiny and inaccurate comments in some media channels (that) have misrepresented what occurred during the investigation we assisted your organization with May 31st thru June 2nd. I am not asking you to confirm or deny the investigation but I am asking you to confirm that assistance was requested from the Siskiyou County Sheriff’s Office for your investigative team during these dates. I have a record of 4 to 5 phone calls requesting assistance with the effort,” Lopey writes.

No response was included in the documents provided to the paper. Lopey said Thursday that he never got one.

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