The owner and an employee of a company accused of fraudulent voter registration drives in Sacramento County have been convicted of crimes of deception in the past.
The owner of Momentum Political Services, Monica Harris, has an extensive criminal history, including a prison sentence for stealing from a family she befriended and buying a van with funds stolen from a youth agency, court records show. Two of her victims called Harris a "professional con artist."
Harris' employee, Remy Heng, recently pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Sacramento to his role in a multimillion-dollar mortgage fraud scheme in Northern California.
Jill LaVine, Sacramento County's registrar of voters, has turned over evidence of what she called registration fraud to the California Secretary of State's Office. She said that at least one-fourth of the 31,000 registration cards submitted by Harris and her circulators since September have been rejected for inaccuracies.
Momentum Political Services was hired by the Republican Party of Sacramento County to conduct voter registration drives. LaVine said her office found numerous examples of people of having their political party affiliation switched to Republican against their wishes.
The controversy over Harris' operation has renewed debate over "bounty hunting," the practice of paying for each voter registered to a party. Officials say the payments are responsible for cases of registration fraud that happen every election cycle throughout California.
The Republican Party of Sacramento County paid Harris $5 for each voter registered to the party, Harris said. Those are the only payments that circulators receive during registration drives, yet they are supposed to remain neutral about which party a potential voter selects.
In a three-month period ending in February, Republicans paid Momentum Political Services about $54,000, federal election records show.
Harris said the discarded registrations in Sacramento County were generally the result of mistakes, although she said she has reported cases of suspected fraud by past employees to the Secretary of State's Office.
Sue Blake, chairwoman of the Sacramento County Republican Party, did not return messages from The Bee.
Jennifer Kerns, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, said the party has stopped working with Harris because of concerns about the accuracy of her work.
Between 1994 and 2011, the fraud unit of the Secretary of State's Office opened 1,062 cases for fraudulent voter registration, including fraudulently altering party affiliation on voter registration cards. Of those, 114 were referred to local district attorneys for prosecution, and 65 resulted in convictions.
Gail Pellerin, president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials, said the bounty system means signature collectors work at cross purposes with election officials. She said the association would like the practice outlawed.
"When you have a per-card bounty, you tend to get poor results," she said. "They want high numbers quantity. We want quality accurate information."
Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, said he has heard complaints from residents in his district about switched party registrations since his first campaign in 2010. He blames the bounties, too.
"The compensation system creates an incentive for people to commit fraud," he said.
Pan is considering legislation that would ban the bounty system. Workers would be paid hourly or by some other means.
Bills prohibiting bounty payments in California were approved in 2006 and last year, but vetoed by Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Brown, respectively. Schwarzenegger's veto message was not focused on the bounty system, while Brown said attempts to register voters should be promoted, not criminalized.
Harris said she has worked numerous petition drives for Democratic-backed initiatives but was always paid by other contractors and never directly by the Democratic Party.
Steve Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant, said the Republicans had a responsibility to check Harris' criminal record, especially since she received high-profile work such as a recent effort to get voters for the re-election bid of Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River.
"If they didn't check these people out, that's political malpractice," Maviglio said.
Kerns said the Republican Party never conducted a criminal background check before hiring Harris to run voter drives.
Harris said all her employees receive training that explains they are prohibited by law from influencing voters on their party selection. Each time someone receives registration cards in Sacramento County, that person must sign a form that cites the law.
Harris said she shouldn't be judged by her criminal record. She points out that the law allows her to collect registrations because she's a registered voter. In California, someone with a criminal record can vote once his or her sentence is finished.
In 1994, Harris pleaded guilty to two counts of theft and one count of trafficking in stolen property for stealing from Chelaye Hines and Su Chism in Washington state, records show. "She spent months cultivating our friendship," Hines and Chism wrote in a letter to the court.
When the two went on vacation, Harris, who was house-sitting, stole thousands of dollars in valuables from them, according to court records. She also claimed she worked for an agency that helped pregnant teenagers and used its credit to buy a van, which she reportedly used to haul the valuables stolen from Hines and Chism.
Hines and Chism wrote the court that Harris is a "professional con artist," and that she had stolen $20,000 when she worked as a fundraiser for a voter initiative in Portland, Ore.
Harris was sentenced to 14 months in prison.
In 1999, she got into trouble for another scam selling tickets for a bogus raffle when she had no prizes to give, records show. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a month in jail.
Harris told The Bee that her criminal troubles occurred during a rough period.
"I had a mental breakdown. I stole a work van and left the state," she said. "I ended up in a mental hospital after trying to kill myself."
Several years later, Harris was living in Sacramento and in need of part-time work. She turned to voter registration, but the man running the company ended up leaving town and owing her $2,400, she said.
Harris said she went to the Republican Party of Sacramento County to complain and ended up getting the contract for the work herself.
She said Remy Heng has been a close associate in her company. Heng told her about his indictment in the federal mortgage case in 2010, and she allowed him to continue to work because the Secretary of State's Office said he was still legally allowed to do so, Harris said.
Heng said he stopped working on voter drives after he pleaded guilty in the mortgage fraud case in March. Prosecutors alleged that the participants falsely inflated the value of homes and collected the difference between the real value of the homes and the paid prices.
In a 2008 interview with the FBI, Heng acknowledged his participation in the scheme, along with illegally growing marijuana in houses, federal court records show.
Agents showed Heng a picture of him leaving a FedEx Kinko's store, where he had mailed $20,000 in cash, sealed in a Pringles chip can, to the ringleader of the scam, who had fled to Spain.
"I'm going to jail," Heng told the agents, according to a summary of his interview.
Heng pleaded guilty to bulk cash smuggling and was sentenced to 36 months probation. One of the terms of his probation is to not associate with ex-convicts. He told The Bee he was not aware of Harris' criminal background.