The Vietnamese government is behind more than six months of political turmoil at Westminster City Hall, according to Mayor Tri Ta.
He did not provide specific evidence for his claims, which could become an official city statement.
In a draft resolution to be voted on at Wednesday’s City Council meeting, he describes a “marked increase” since the 2018 elections in political incidents and disruptions “in furtherance” of Vietnamese government policies that “call for direct confrontation with and active conflicts against any and all overseas forces that present a threat to the Vietnamese Communist Party’s hold on power.” The resolution encourages residents to “raise their voices” against anyone they suspect of fomenting disorder on behalf of Hanoi.
Ta, who is facing a possible recall election, did not respond to multiple phone and text attempts for comment. Neither did the State Department or the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington, D.C. Rukelt Dalberis, a spokesman for the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office, said the agency can neither confirm nor deny whether they’re currently investigating suspected foreign interference in the city.
Westminster has the highest number of Vietnamese American residents outside Vietnam. They are “diametrically opposed to the Hanoi regime,” Ta says in the resolution. North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam in 1975 and thousands of South Vietnamese immigrated to the U.S.
Ta claims the Vietnamese government is working with some residents — who he identifies as Vietnamese American “community activists” and “independent journalists” in Orange County’s Little Saigon — to disrupt city business with misinformation campaigns.
Van Tran, a former State Assemblyman and Ta’s attorney throughout a recall effort against him, said “the level or intensity of political turmoil” in Westminster ramped up after the last set of elections.
“You have elected officials come and go, with of course differences and arguments, but never have I seen … the level of disturbance and political instability that’s occurring right now. I think (Ta’s) resolution addresses that squarely,” he said.
The 2018 elections in Westminster resulted in two factions on the five-member City Council. Ta and Councilmembers Kimberly Ho and Charlie Nguyen comprise the majority. Councilmembers Tai Do and Sergio Contreras are the minority.
Over the last eight months, Do has challenged the majority on ideas about ethics and power at City Hall, frequently accusing them during public meetings of corruption and operating “above the law.”
Almost every City Council meeting now draws large crowds of the city’s English and Vietnamese-speaking residents, who criticize select council members in public comments.
The fighting also prompted recall campaigns against all five council members, with interest from elected officials and political groups across Orange County.
Do in a phone interview called Ta’s claims in the new draft policy “a scare tactic” reminiscent of “McCarthyism,” and said it’s an effort to shield the majority faction “against a qualified legal recall effort that’s been pushed by the residents of Westminster.”
The recall efforts against Ho, Nguyen and Ta — under the leadership of political group Westminster United — are closer to an election than the efforts to unseat Do and Contreras.
Westminster United has gained the support of Vietnamese American billionaire Kieu Hoang, who’s hired paid signature collectors and political consultant Dave Gilliard to advise the recall team’s strategies.
Ta in his draft policy says U.S. law enforcement agencies like the FBI “have in past years confirmed … that there have been active efforts by the Hanoi regime to infiltrate and disrupt any international attempt to oppose its one-party rule.”
Tran said he remembers a community meeting in the early 2000’s — when he was on the Garden Grove City Council — where FBI and Orange County District Attorney officials said they were monitoring suspected foreign agents in Little Saigon.
“It’s been so long ago,” he said in a later text. “I remembered some of the Viet local electeds as well as community leaders and (representatives) of different groups. There were maybe 25-30 people.”
In the 1990’s, the FBI launched controversial ads in Vietnamese language newspapers in California calling on Vietnamese Americans to report people who they suspected of being spies for Hanoi.
Among the newspapers running the ads was Little Saigon’s Nguoi Viet Daily News, according to the Los Angeles Times.
In 1999, a Westminster video store prompted large protests in the city after hanging a photo of Ho Chi Minh — the late Vietnamese Communist leader who died in 1969 — and a Communist Vietnamese flag. A judge that year ruled in favor of Truong Van Tran, the store owner, on the basis of 1st Amendment free speech, according to the Times.
“The lighting rod issue of communism is the cudgel or blunt instrument to mobilize for or against someone,” said Long Bui, a UC Irvine professor and expert in Vietnamese and South Asian issues.
Bui said accusations of communism among Vietnamese American communities “can hurt an individual’s political aspirations, since they are effectively denounced as un-American, essentially a spy or puppet of foreign dictatorship.”
In June, the majority faction approved a city statement denouncing Do over a Facebook post on his official page reading “Westminster is officially now Ho Chi Minh City brought to you by Tri Ta, Kimberly Ho, and Chi (Charlie) Nguyen.”
Supporters of Do called the post “sarcasm.” He wrote it after after a June 12 council meeting ended with the adoption of a policy that bars any council member from placing an item on a future public meeting agenda without the approval of three council members.
Critics of the policy, like Do and Contreras, accused the majority of passing the agenda-setting item to consolidate power over city issues and political opponents.
Ta in his resolution also identifies “aiders and abettors” of the Vietnamese government as people who have “hosted internet websites and related social media (forums) to criticize and attack Vietnamese American community leaders and certain elected officials,” as well as people who have “disseminated false information or ‘half-truths’” on platforms like social media.
Bui said Vietnamese Americans across the U.S. “remain super-sensitive to accusations of being called a communist, whether one was born during or even after the war.”
“The label can quickly turn something merely political into something controversial,” he said. “If you call someone a communist, you are saying they are an enemy of the community and must be pushed out.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC intern. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.