The 68th District

The 68th District

A candidate for state office may not have lived in the district he seeks to represent at the time he registered to vote, when he submitted his nomination papers, and when he voted there during the primary election, according to campaign finance and voter registration records and accounts from several neighbors.

Businessman Phu Nguyen, the Democratic candidate for the Costa Mesa-area 68th Assembly District, grew up in a home within the district and stated during an interview that he moved back in before he registered to vote, but neighbors and public records indicate that he did not.

If that is the case, election law experts say, he may have committed perjury on his voting affidavit and on his nomination papers, and may have voted fraudulently. Officials and legal experts cite the California election code, which says an Assembly candidate must be qualified to vote, and therefore have his or her "domicile" in the district.

Neighbors say that Nguyen, 33, wasn't living in his family's Westminster home, and was instead living in Santa Ana — outside of the 68th District — when he registered to vote Oct. 6, 2009, submitted his nomination papers March 10, 2010, and voted in the state primary June 8, 2010.

Nguyen disputed the Westminster residents' accounts and said they couldn't have been watching his home closely enough to know whether he lived there with his wife and children. He said multiple times in an interview that he moved into the Westminster house during spring 2009.

"The neighbors are wrong," he said. "They've seen me. They've seen my family."

Lives in district 'majority of the time'

In a follow-up interview, however, Nguyen changed his story and said his family split time between the two homes and spent "the majority of the time in Westminster," rather than at the Santa Ana house.

In addition to Costa Mesa, the 68th Assembly District includes Westminster, Garden Grove and Fountain Valley — but not the section of Santa Ana where Nguyen is believed to have lived.

Nguyen is seeking the open seat vacated by Assemblyman Van Tran, who is termed out, against Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor, a Republican who has made headlines for his hard stances against illegal immigration.

Nguyen's neighbors in Santa Ana say he was living in a home in that city steadily, until just about a month ago. Around the end of August he moved into a home in Garden Grove, which is in the 68th District. Nguyen owns all three properties; his parents added him to the Westminster title in December 2009.

During the time he claims to have lived in Westminster, Nguyen made two donations to political groups and listed his Santa Ana address, campaign finance records show.

Nguyen gave $300 to the Democratic Party of Orange County in November 2009 and $250 to Melissa Fox, another state Assembly candidate, in January 2010, according to the reports.

In both cases, the state or federal election finance records show, he is listed at his Santa Ana home. Nguyen said that he probably wrote checks at fundraisers, and that his old address was printed on them.

But the donation to Fox was made online with a credit card, records show. An online contributor to Fox's campaign is required to fill out an address along with credit card information.

Federal and state law requires that candidates and political action committees, or PACs, collect the donor's name, mailing address, occupation and name of employer, among other information.

"They have to fill it out on a card that we provide them when they make a contribution," said Frank Barbaro, chairman of the Democratic Party of Orange County, which is supporting Nguyen's campaign.

Nguyen said he doesn't remember if he filled out a form that asked for such information.

Accounts from neighbors

Hong Tran, who has lived across the street from the Westminster home for five years and has met Nguyen on multiple occasions, said the candidate hasn't lived there since she moved in.

"He lived there when he was a kid, but now that they're rich they have a big house," Tran said.

Tran pointed out the Nguyen family's tired-looking home on a busy intersection in Westminster to show where he claimed to have moved.

By contrast, in Santa Ana, Nguyen owns a $1.5-million home in a gated community near Bear Street and MacArthur Boulevard, just north of South Coast Plaza. On a recent visit, children played unsupervised there on calm streets lined with Mercedes and Land Rovers.

"How could he live here now?" Tran asked.

Another neighbor, Kande Masters, had never met Nguyen in the 28 years she has lived next door to the Westminster house. That is until about May, she says, when he came over to ask for her vote in the June primary.

"I found him to be a very pleasant guy," she said. "He was very nice and hopeful."

Nguyen told Masters he planned to move into the house that his family owned, she says, but he never did.

He had started to maintain the lawn, though, and Masters was pleased because it had grown over with weeds, she said.

Still, on Sept. 1, the Nguyens' dusty front porch in Westminster was littered with fliers, circulars and an old phone book.

Nguyen claims he had moved out of the Westminster house about two weeks earlier, in mid-August, to move to the Garden Grove house.

Masters estimates that since about May, Nguyen has come by about four or five times per month, parking his Toyota pickup truck in front of his family's house.

Even though she's a Republican, Masters said, she considered voting for Nguyen because "he seems like he'd really be for the people."

Neighbors: Nguyen would stop by

But Nguyen disputed Masters' account and called her a "staunch Republican Allan Mansoor supporter, the white lady living right next to me."

Masters isn't the only neighbor who contradicts Nguyen's account. Tran, the neighbor across the street, is a Vietnamese mother with two young children.

She has run into Nguyen at multiple community events, she said, and has many friends who send money back home through the Nguyens' company.

One recent evening, she left her windowsill overlooking the street to come to the front door. Tran, who stays at home except for a few hours each day, described how a family with two school-age children, a set of grandparents, and a husband and wife were renting the Nguyen's Westminster home for about a year and a half, until late 2009.

That family drove a Toyota minivan, not a pickup, she said.

Nguyen maintains that the last renter moved out of the Westminster home in 2006, or maybe even before then, he said, but couldn't remember the exact dates.

Tran said Nguyen would stop by the home infrequently to visit the renters. Then, in about May 2010, Nguyen began dropping by about once per week and stayed for only a few hours during the day, she recalled, as did Masters.

"If they are always, 24 hours a day, looking in front of my house to see if I'm there or not, then they would have some kind of basis. But nobody's doing that," Nguyen said before walking out of an interview with a reporter last week.

Advisor furnishes water bill

In response to a request for evidence that he lived in Westminster at the time he said he did, Nguyen's campaign manager in late September provided a reporter with a water bill showing Nguyen received service from May 6 to June 30, 2009, in his name, at the Westminster address.

Otherwise, the consultant said then, Nguyen had no other documents to show he lived there.

Nguyen's family has owned the one-story Westminster home at the intersection of Magnolia Street and Natoma Avenue since 1986, when he was 9 years old. He lived there while his parents developed their business of shipping goods back to their native Vietnam.

Eventually, the goods business evolved into a lucrative remittance company. He and his sister now run the business.

"People need to know that I grew up in the 68th. I live, I play, I run my business in the 68th," Nguyen said. "I am the 68th."

Nguyen said his young family, including his wife, toddler and infant, were living in the Westminster house until they decided to move into a tidy home in a gated community in Garden Grove, about five miles away, within the 68th Assembly District, and across the street from his in-laws.

Even if an Assembly candidate lives in the district now, the person must have listed his or her current primary residence when filing out nomination papers, according to Neal Kelley, the Orange County registrar of voters.

The state election law says one's voting residence, or "domicile," is "that place in which his or her habitation is fixed," and where the person "has the intention of remaining." It also says at any given time, a person may have only one voting residence.

Ultimately, the state Constitution says members of the Assembly would be the ones to determine if a person is qualified to serve, legal experts say.

But criminal charges are another matter, says Richard Hasen, an election law professor at Loyola Law School.

Legal expert cites L.A. case

Hasen compared the issues to those in the case of Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon, who along with his wife recently pleaded not guilty to charges of filing a false declaration of candidacy, voter fraud and perjury.

Alarcon is accused in a grand jury indictment of listing his voting residence as a home in Panorama City and living elsewhere, outside the district he represents. He is accused of using the Panorama City address to vote in seven elections, leading to multiple felony counts of voter fraud.

UCLA law professor Daniel Lowenstein, an election law expert, says a candidate would have to prove the "intention" of making a place their home. Neighbors' statements or documents to the contrary aren't decisive on their own, he said, but would have to be weighed with other facts.

"That kind of thing could be evidence of his state of mind," Lowenstein said.

Whether someone is prosecuted is up to the local district attorney's office, officials say. Voters, meanwhile, may have to choose a candidate before then.

Some observers anticipate this Assembly race to be tighter than usual in a reliably Republican district. They say Nguyen has a chance of wooing many Vietnamese voters who would typically vote Republican. Some voters may be disillusioned with Mansoor, who received criticism after he led a charge to declare Costa Mesa a "rule of law" city opposed to illegal immigration, the thinking goes. Also, Nguyen has dedicated himself to many Vietnamese causes.

"Mansoor owns a house in Virginia, and he rents in the 68th," Nguyen said. "You want a residency issue? Compare me to that."

Mansoor sold his Costa Mesa home in 2005 and began renting an apartment there, but he says he wants to buy another one after the election, when he has more free time. His parents live in the Virginia home.

Mansoor: We should live in district

Mansoor said in an interview that he had heard rumors about Nguyen's residency issues, but had not looked into it.

"We're all supposed to follow the same rules," Mansoor said. "We're supposed to be living in the district we're running in. I hope that's the case [with Nguyen]. I think that voters want to know that candidates live in the district and are registered to vote in the district."

Neighbors around Nguyen's Santa Ana house — the one outside of the 68th Assembly District — said that they saw the Nguyens regularly until the end of August, around the time he moved to Garden Grove and after the period in which he registered to vote in Westminster.

Four neighbors, interviewed separately, concurred.

One of them is Suyen Lee, who has lived across the street from the Nguyen home for five years and supplies signs to the Nguyen family remittance company. Another is Jonathan Fung, a teenager who walks his dog by Nguyen's house in the evenings.

Each said the candidate was living in the quiet Santa Ana community of high-end tract homes. Built in 2004, the neighborhood has a private playground, park, community pool and manned guard gate just down the block from Nguyen's house.

"They'd live their everyday lives," Fung said about the Nguyens. He has been across the street from their house for the last four years.

In August, Fung said he saw the young family loading up their pickup truck, and hasn't seen them since.