On the witness stand, 90-year-old Bernard Roberts could barely hear the questions being shouted at him. Roberts, who lives in a retirement community in Surprise, Ariz., had received a subpoena to testify in a dispute over a City Council election in faraway Vernon.

Roberts had voted in the Vernon election. Or, at least, someone had cast a ballot in his name. He had no memory of it.

“I don't know what the hell I'm doing here,” he testified. “I don't live here.”

Stuffing ballot boxes was once a fine American tradition. But these days, voter fraud is largely a partisan stalking horse, conjured up to justify onerous voter ID requirements.

Voters can — and occasionally do — sneak into the polls by claiming to be someone else. But if you're trying to steal an election, the problem is one of scale. It's simply too hard to round up enough ringers to turn the outcome.

The tiny city of Vernon is the exception. Just south of downtown L.A., it claims just 112 residents and 70 registered voters. A handful of fraudulent votes can tip the balance of power.

And that looks to be what happened when Reno Bellamy won the June City Council election by four votes.

Suspicious of the outcome, the Vernon Chamber of Commerce hired a private investigator and unraveled a bizarre plot featuring a cast of characters straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel.

Over the course of a three-day hearing in September, the Chamber put on a compelling case that nine ballots were illegally cast by people who lived in the high desert and Orange County as well as Arizona — enough to steal the election for Bellamy.

The investigators had to chase after some of the voters to serve subpoenas. They also tracked car registrations and uncovered Facebook accounts in which the new voters listed addresses far from Vernon.

On the witness stand, several voters resorted to claiming that, while they spend most of their time elsewhere, their “roots” are in Vernon.

The details are absurd, but the stakes are high: If allowed to stand, these votes could be key to undoing much-needed reforms in Vernon — and ousting the administrator who pushed for them.

Vernon is susceptible to voter fraud for one reason beyond its tiny number of voters: It's rich. Every day, 50,000 people come to work in its meatpacking plants and cold-storage warehouses. Those businesses get their power from the city-owned utility, which rakes in more than $200 million a year.

It's no coincidence that Vernon officials have tended to become wealthy. Until recently, the highest pension in California — more than $500,000 annually — went to Bruce Malkenhorst, the former Vernon administrator. His successor, Eric Fresch, made more than $1 million a year.

Those excesses prompted the Legislature last year to consider the radical step of dissolving the city. That's when the Vernon Chamber of Commerce got involved in reform. Only by cleaning up City Hall could the Chamber stop the dissolution and protect its low tax and utility rates.

Last November, Eric Fresch announced his resignation. (Soon after his last day this spring, on the very day a state audit blasted his handling of the city's affairs, Fresch accidentally fell to his death at a Bay Area state park.) The new city administrator, Mark Whitworth, makes $267,000 — not the ridiculous sums awarded to his predecessors.

That should have been the end of the story. But, this spring, some new people started registering to vote, just in time for two City Council elections. They claimed to live at Vernon addresses. And, in June, they all voted for Bellamy, a political newcomer who beat the Chamber-backed candidate, 34-30.

“Essentially three households took it upon themselves to pad the voting rolls and stuff the ballot box,” said Fred Woocher, the Chamber's attorney. “This was done for someone's private political or financial advantage.”

Steve Freed, a longtime City Hall watchdog who attended the hearing, believes he has a good idea who that “someone” might be: Curtis Fresch.

Eric Fresch's brother used to work for the city, making $330,000 a year as a consultant. But in early 2011, he was fired.

“It appears to many in the business community that he and his associates and friends seem to want to get a foothold in the city government,” Freed tells the Weekly.

The Weekly attempted to reach Curtis Fresch on his cellphone, but the man who answered would not identify himself, except to say that he was not Curtis Fresch. “I don't think I need to give you any information,” he said. “How did you get this number?”

As for Bellamy, he denied to the Weekly that Curtis Fresch was behind his candidacy. Bellamy said he wanted to run for office so he could bring reforms. But those reforms just happen to start with getting rid of Mark Whitworth, who happens to be the guy who fired Curtis Fresch. (Bellamy says Whitworth should go because he awarded himself an “exuberant salary.”)

Bellamy's attorney, a bumbling asbestos lawyer named Joe Maher, denounced the hearing as a “political witchhunt.” But he did little to counter the Chamber's case, calling only two witnesses and filing a trial brief with sweeping rhetoric but no reference to law or precedent.

“Where someone decides to vote is their constitutional right,” he argued. “I don't know when this turned into a Joseph McCarthy hearing.”

Bernard Roberts was first on the stand. Cupping his hand to his ear to hear the questions, Roberts testified that he visits his grandson, Jason, at a house in Vernon, but doesn't live there. He also testified that his son, Dennis, lives with him in Arizona.

When Dennis Roberts took the stand, he told an even more convoluted story.

“I do live there [in Arizona],” he said. “I live there, and I live here. I live both places. I'm here at least once a month.”

It emerged that Bernard's grandson Jason Roberts is the only person who lives at the family's Vernon house full-time. But three relatives — his father, grandfather and brother — registered at that address and cast ballots for Bellamy.

Dennis Roberts has twice confirmed his Arizona address to investigators who pretended to have a package for delivery. But after they called a third time, he got angry and called back. According to testimony at the hearing, he told them, “We're gonna get all you sons of bitches when this is over.”

On the stand, Dennis Roberts said he plays golf for a living, though he hasn't filed income taxes in a while. Asked what prompted him to get involved in Vernon, he said he had gotten to know Curtis Fresch on the links.

“I played a lot of golf with Curt,” he testified. “It's very possible he advised me about the availability of a house.”

Two more Bellamy voters, Glenn and Dean Gulla, testified that they spend most of their time at a desert ranch on a dirt road in Lucerne Valley. The brothers operate soda and candy machines all over Southern California. They claim that when they're on their restocking routes, they sometimes stay with relatives Brad and Duane Gulla in their Vernon apartment, though two neighbors testified they've never seen the men there.

The Chamber's investigators were unable to find two additional Bellamy voters who also are registered at the same address; that makes a total of six adult residents in a two-bedroom apartment.

In an interview with the Weekly outside the hearing, Dean Gulla said he first became acquainted with Vernon through Councilman Rick Maisano, who managed the carwash he worked at in Manhattan Beach — until Gulla was fired for taking $5,000 out of the company safe. In his defense, Gulla said Maisano had given him permission to take the money as a loan. Nevertheless, he was convicted of theft.

Gulla was more forthcoming than some of the others about Curtis Fresch. Maisano and former Councilman Dan Newmire are friends with Fresch, he said. The election contest was a battle between that group, which had been in charge until recently, and the Chamber.

“I didn't agree with everything the council did when we were in [power],” Gulla said. “Now they want their own people in, and we're fighting to stay here. If their side wins, they're gonna evict us all.”

Debra Wong Yang, the city's hearing officer, is set to rule on the disputed ballots any day. If she throws the suspicious votes for Bellamy out, Martinez would be declared the winner.

Reno Bellamy believes a conspiracy is afoot to thwart his victory.

“The city can be bought and paid for,” Bellamy said.

Update, 10/15/2012: Vernon Election Result Overturned; Hearing Officer Finds Out-Of-Towners Illegally Tipped Result 

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