Tan D. Nguyen, a Vietnamese immigrant trying to unseat a popular Mexican-American Democratic congresswoman, resisted calls on Thursday from leaders in his own party to quit the race. He said he had no prior knowledge of the letter that wrongly told thousands of Orange County immigrants they could be jailed if they voted.
"I did not do this. I did not approve of any letter," Nguyen told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. He said he has since fired his campaign's office manager, whom he said helped produce the mailer.
About 10 uniformed California Department of Justice agents arrived Friday with a search warrant and could be seen opening cabinets, scouring desks and packing up a computer inside Nguyen's storefront campaign office.
County Republican Chairman Scott Baugh said that after speaking with state investigators and the company that distributed the mailer, he believes Nguyen had direct knowledge of the "obnoxious and reprehensible" letter. He said the party's executive committee voted unanimously to urge Nguyen to drop out of the race against Democratic U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez.
"I learned information that allows me to draw the conclusion that not only was Mr. Nguyen's campaign involved in this, but that Mr. Nguyen was personally involved in expediting the mailer," Baugh said in a telephone interview.
State and federal officials were investigating the mailing for possible violations of election law. Investigators met with Nguyen for two hours Thursday, said his attorney David Wiechert, who declined to elaborate.
"Mr. Nguyen has no intention of dropping out of the race. He would do the public a disservice if he dropped out," Wiechert said.
The letter, written in Spanish, was mailed to an estimated 14,000 Democratic voters in central Orange County. It warns, "You are advised that if your residence in this country is illegal or you are an immigrant, voting in a federal election is a crime that could result in jail time."
Immigrants who are adult naturalized citizens are eligible to vote.
Numerous political leaders denounced the letter, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who called it "a despicable act of political intimidation and a hate crime."
In neighboring Santa Ana on Friday, Hispanic and Vietnamese leaders condemned the letter and said it should not become a wedge that drives their communities apart. They urged the California Secretary of State to send a letter to homes that received the mailing to clear up any questions about voter rights.
"This letter reminds us of what we were running away from in Vietnam, where people can't vote the way they want. This act brings shame on our community," said Xuyen Dong, who heads the Orange County chapter of the Vietnamese Professional Society.
Illegal immigration has been a centerpiece of Nguyen's campaign to oust Sanchez, a five-term congresswoman who said she has not spoken to Nguyen and never saw him as a threat to her re-election.
"If it is in fact this guy (who sent the letter), the most disgusting and saddest thing about it is that it comes from another immigrant," said Sanchez, who was born in the U.S. to Mexican parents. "These communities have spent years trying to get naturalized immigrants to vote."
Nguyen's campaign Web site says he was born in 1973 in Vietnam, where his family fled the communist regime.
Orange County for years has been a battleground on immigration issues.