State election fraud investigator looking at Tony Vang case

The Fresno BeeJune 19, 2012 

The California Secretary of State's Election Fraud Investigation Unit is evaluating complaints against embattled Fresno Unified Trustee Tony Vang to determine whether he violated the elections code. Chief Investigator Dan Harward said Tuesday he would probably have a decision this week.

"If we determine that there has been a violation, then we would go ahead and open up an investigation," Harward said.

If an investigation occurs, "our ultimate goal would be to determine where he lived," Harward said.

Secretary of State investigations are confidential, but investigators would likely interview Vang and his neighbors, and review Department of Motor Vehicle records, property tax records and utility bills, said Bob Stern, a campaign ethics expert and elections counsel for the California Secretary of State in the 1970s.

"If they find he is not registered properly, he is not eligible to be a school board member," Stern said.

Vang has faced scrutiny after revelations that he bought a home in the Clovis Unified School District and voted there while continuing to serve on the Fresno Unified board.

California education code requires that trustees live in the district they serve, and FUSD policy says trustees must reside within the portion of the district they represent.

Last month, county elections chief Brandi Orth released Vang's voting history. According to those records, Vang's registered address from 2007 to 2010 was a house he owns -- the primary dwelling for him and his wife -- on East Goshen Avenue in northeast Fresno.

Harward said any state investigation would likely draw on Vang's Fresno County voting records.

But the Secretary of State doesn't have the authority to file criminal charges, according to spokeswoman Shannan Velayas.

When investigators find evidence of wrongdoing, they refer the case to local law enforcement agencies -- such as the Fresno County District Attorney's Office -- for prosecution.

Elections fraud can be a felony and may include perjury charges. Also, the elections code says that anyone who provides false information when declaring candidacy for office can be fined up to $1,000 and face up to three years in prison.

Elections fraud has been prosecuted in Fresno as recently as 2010, when longtime southwest Fresno community activist Darlene Holland was sentenced to two years of probation and 500 hours of community service for turning in forged voter signatures on the signatures-in-lieu petitions for then-Fresno City Council candidate Oliver Baines and Fresno County supervisorial hopeful Cynthia Sterling.

Vang's residency controversy prompted him to step down as FUSD board president last week, according to the spokesman for Vang's Sacramento-based attorney.

An election for a new president will be held at today's meeting -- the final one of the school year. Only active board members can be nominated, and the new president will immediately preside over the meeting. If Clerk Valerie Davis becomes president, then she will accept nominations for her replacement.

The election follows one of the most tumultuous meetings in recent memory. Trustees Michelle Asadoorian and Larry Moore walked out in the early minutes of the June 6 meeting after they were silenced by Vang when trying to address his residency issues. An attorney for FUSD said Vang was within his rights as board president to ignore the trustees.

While Vang is no longer chairman, he said in a statement last week he intends to remain a trustee. He said he has lived in the McLane High School area since he was first elected to serve in 2002.

Trustees Moore and Asadoorian, Superintendent of Fresno County Schools Larry Powell and the League of Women Voters of Fresno have independently requested action from state and local officials. But finding an agency that has both legal jurisdiction and an appetite for pursuing an investigation has been a complicated and dizzying endeavor.

Last week, the Fresno County District Attorney's Office referred complaints about Vang to the state Attorney General's Office, saying the state had jurisdiction over residency issues for elected officials.

But this week, the Attorney General's Office sent Vang's case back to the Fresno County District Attorney, saying primary jurisdiction resides with local authorities.

A spokeswoman for Fresno County DA Elizabeth Egan said Tuesday evening that the office is still working with state agencies to sort out what, if any, role it has in Vang's case.

Private citizens could also file suit against Vang in Fresno County courts to seek his removal from office.

The Attorney General's Office offered another option -- the Fresno County Board of Supervisors could take the case. On Monday, League of Women Voters President Francine Farber requested the Board of Supervisors consider taking action and also asked that Egan reconsider her position on the Vang case.

Board of Supervisors Clerk Bernice Seidel said Tuesday that Farber's request had been forwarded to county counsel, county supervisors and County Administrative Officer John Navarrette. Seidel said that in her 10 years with the county, the board never had been asked to investigate a Fresno Unified trustee.


If you go

What: Last Fresno Unified board meeting of the school year

When: Today, open meeting begins at 5:30 p.m.

Where: FUSD main office, 2309 Tulare St. in downtown Fresno

Online: The district shows a live broadcast at dl.fresnounified.org/Board.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6412 hsomerville@fresnobee.com or @heathersomervil on Twitter.

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