Newport Beach launches its own look into potential voter fraud, concurrent with D.A.’s investigation

The Newport Beach City Council has decided to issue subpoenas for an investigation into alleged voter fraud; an Orange County District Attorney’s Office review is already under way.

In January, the District Attorney’s Office seized the petitions used in a failed attempt to recall Newport Beach Councilman Scott Peotter – citing “potential irregularities” in the signatures.

The city has goals different from the DA’s Office in the simultaneous investigations, Councilman Kevin Muldoon said of the council’s 5-2 decision Tuesday, Feb. 13.

“Our investigation is entirely policy-oriented,” he said. “We do not have the authority to prosecute. But we need to know what happened so we can take steps to safeguard the democratic process.”

The city charter grants council members the power to subpoena witnesses and question them under oath.

But attorney Phil Greer, who represents the recall committee, said the city was seeking “privileged information that could violate constitutional rights.”

The Committee to Recall Scott Peotter turned in 10,696 signatures in October in an effort to force a special recall election. More than 2,300 were deemed invalid by the Orange County Registrar of Voters, leaving 8,339 valided signatures – 106 short of the 15 percent of registered voters required.

Recall backers criticized Peotter’s support for the failed Museum House high-rise project and his vote to decline the city’s share of extra gas tax revenue in protest of the controversial tax hike.

While Peotter voted in favor of the city’s investigation, he said “I will keep my nose out of it.”

“I don’t want people to think it’s retribution for the recall effort,” Peotter said after the meeting. “The city is interested in protecting our electoral system. The two investigations will work hand in hand, augmenting one another.”

Councilman Jeff Herdman, who with Diane Dixon voted against the subpoenas, expressed concern the investigation could run up a tab unnecessarily.

“I do not see a need to duplicate the effort of the D.A.,” Herdman said. “We should let the D.A.’s investigation play out.”

Herdman called the vote “premature,” saying council members had not yet discussed costs of an investigation. “I have no idea what the price tag will be,” he said. “If we do in fact begin the subpoena process, that implies depositions and court costs.”

Time if of the essence with November’s council elections approaching, Muldoon said. He said the investigation would be handled mostly by the city attorney and “should not cost more than $10,000.”

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