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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Prison for Lying?

A former candidate is going to prison for lying — but not for lying to voters.

We’ve often pointed out that the First Amendment gives candidates the right to say pretty much whatever they want to voters — whether it’s true or not. That’s why we make it our mission to help voters sort out fact from fiction.

But on Feb. 14, a federal judge sentenced former House candidate Tan Nguyen to one year and one day in federal prison for lying — to investigators. He had been convicted by a jury Dec. 7.

The conviction stems from Tan’s failed bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Loretta Sanchez of California in 2006. Tan’s campaign sent about 14,000 letters in Spanish to foreign-born registered voters with Latino surnames, warning that “emigrados” could go to jail for voting, and claiming (falsely) that a new database contained information about new voters.

This prompted state and federal investigations into possible illegal intimidation of voters. State officials cleared Tan in 2007. Senior Assistant Attorney General Gary Schons said, "We could not prove that there was an intent to intimidate lawfully registered voters," although "there’s no doubt there was an intent to intimidate unlawfully registered voters." The Civil Rights Division of the federal Department of Justice continued to investigate, but did not charge Tan with voter intimidation either. Instead, he was charged with — and ultimately convicted of — obstruction of justice, for denying to state investigators that he was behind his campaign’s letter.

As Richard Nixon often said, "It’s the cover-up that hurts."