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September 18, 2014

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Nevada is prosecuting ACORN itself, not just individuals in it

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Justin M. Bowen

Attorney Lisa Rasmussen, representing ACORN, questions Colin Haynes, an investigator with Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller’s office, during a Sept. 29 court hearing regarding allegations that the organization engaged in an illegal program that provided incentives for registering voters.

ACORN hearing (9-29-09)

Amy Busefink, ACORN deputy regional director, whom authorities allege was involved with an illegal voter registration incentive program, appears in court Tuesday in Las Vegas. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

For more than 40 years ACORN has helped the nation’s poor solve their own problems.

In Las Vegas, where the nonprofit group has been operating for only five years, members lobbied local government to build a sidewalk on Ogden Avenue so families taking their children to and from Hollingsworth Elementary School wouldn’t have to walk in the street. They worked to bring a grocery store to West Las Vegas after the area’s only supermarket closed. And ACORN staff members have helped locals apply for tax credits and avoid foreclosure.

Lately, however, amid a videotape scandal and voter registration investigations across the country, the liberal community organization with chapters in dozens of U.S. cities has been struggling with its own problems.

Last month, as conservative Republicans stepped up their scandal-fueled attacks on ACORN, the Democratic-controlled Congress moved to cut off its federal funding, and the Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Census Bureau severed ties with the group.

The actions followed outrage over video showing ACORN employees condoning talk of tax evasion and other illegal activities during secretly recorded conversations with conservative activists posing as a pimp and a prostitute.

Because it works primarily in poor and minority communities, the group is often associated with Democratic officials and programs. (More than 90 percent of the people ACORN signed up in its most recent Southern Nevada voter registration drive registered as Democrats, according to election officials.)

ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, faces still another high-stakes challenge — and more embarrassment — in Nevada, where it has been charged with 13 felony counts related to potential voter registration fraud during the 2008 campaign.

This is the only state where ACORN, as an organization, is accused of criminal wrongdoing. Similar investigations in Pennsylvania and Florida have resulted in charges against individual canvassers the group hired to register voters.

“With ACORN, one wonders how it could get worse for them,” said Tom Fitton, president of Washington-based Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog group that has been digging into ACORN’s activities. “But a criminal conviction of the organization itself — that would be worse.”

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Amy Busefink, ACORN's deputy regional director, who authorities allege was involved with an alleged illegal voter registration incentive program, appears in court Sept. 29 in Las Vegas.

The organization is not charged with voter registration fraud, but rather with 13 counts of compensation for registration of voters, a felony statute that Chief Deputy Attorney General Conrad Hafen said has been on the books for several years but hasn’t been used in a criminal investigation. Amy Busefink, a former ACORN regional director, is also charged in the case.

Essentially, the attorney general’s office accuses ACORN of unlawfully paying its canvassers based on the number of voter registration cards they turned in each day. Workers had to gather at least 20 completed cards a day to keep their jobs, and anyone who turned in 21 or more cards would be given an extra $5 under a bonus program known as “blackjack.”

After more than a year of investigating, authorities have been unable to document any case in which an individual was illegally registered to vote, or illegally cast a ballot because of ACORN’s actions. But they believe ACORN’s quota system created the climate for widespread fraud.

•••

If ACORN is ultimately found guilty, there will be repercussions.

“In other circumstances, a criminal case conviction for a corporation is essentially a death sentence,” Fitton said. “It could lead to all sorts of sanctions.”

In Nevada, however, because a corporation can’t be sentenced to prison, the only certain punishment ACORN would receive is a fine of up to $65,000, or $5,000 for each count. More costly would be a further tainted reputation that chases away political allies and donors.

Secretary of State Ross Miller said he would be powerless to stop ACORN from doing business in the state if it were convicted, unless a judge ordered him to revoke the group’s license as part of a criminal sentencing.

There is no state law that allows the secretary of state on his own to dissolve the corporate charter of a convicted group — something Miller said he wants the 2011 Legislature to correct.

Miller said current laws also would make it difficult for his office to prevent ACORN from conducting another voter registration drive in the state.

ACORN has not indicated any plans to mount an aggressive voter registration campaign here in 2010, and that suits Clark County Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax just fine.

“I absolutely do not want them back,” said Lomax, who asked state authorities to investigate ACORN last year after discovering irregularities with registration forms the group submitted to the Election Department. “They’re nothing but trouble.”

And it is unlikely candidates would welcome ACORN’s support during campaign season.

“They’ll be pretty toxic politically,” said Sig Rogich, a longtime Republican political consultant. “I would certainly never recommend that any of my clients have anything to do with them if they’re found guilty of a felony.”

Dan Hart, a Democratic strategist, said ACORN could become a political pariah that would be used against any politician who associates with the group.

“A conviction would destroy their credibility and effectiveness,” Hart said. “It would take them years to get back to where they were before the court case.”

Rogich added, “If they’re convicted, the support they have in Congress will evaporate. I think you’ll find people running from them.”

Fitton said a conviction would worsen ACORN’s funding problems.

“I can’t imagine any government entity at the state, local or federal level that would want to fund them,” he said, adding that the group’s major private donors also likely would begin to abandon the organization.

“Even ideologically committed contributors would have difficulty giving money to an organization that has been convicted of a crime,” Fitton said.

Clare Crawford, the national deputy political director for ACORN, acknowledged that some contributors have been scared away because of the “highly public attacks” on the organization from the right.

“But I think the impact a conviction would have on funding would be limited,” she said.

•••

What may be harder to gauge is the effect ACORN’s legal troubles will have on its many community activities here.

Five years ago a few dozen neighborhood residents met in the West Side Library as members of the Las Vegas Valley’s first chapter of ACORN, charged up about pushing local government into putting speed bumps on their streets and cleaning up empty lots.

The group launched its first local voter registration drive that same year.

Since then, local membership in the organization has grown to more than 600, with three chapters.

But because of the current scandals, the organization will have to work next year with less federal funding and fewer contributions from private sources. Donors have already pulled about $60,000, more than half the Las Vegas office’s annual budget for organizing neighborhood chapters, according to ACORN Southwest Regional Director Matthew Henderson.

And there are indications that former supporters in local and state government are beginning to distance themselves from the group.

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Lawrence Weekly

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Steven Horsford

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Gary Reese

Clark County Commissioner Lawrence Weekly, who was at some of those first meetings in 2004 as a Las Vegas councilman representing most of the first chapter’s members, did not return calls seeking comment. Neither did Democratic state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, whose district also includes the West Las Vegas chapter, the organization’s largest.

Las Vegas Councilman Gary Reese, whose district includes that stretch of Ogden Avenue, where ACORN members pushed for a sidewalk, said he never liked the group’s tactics, which he saw as organizing residents for a monthly fee, something he already did for free. “They would come to meetings and say, ‘We can get things done for you’ — and I was already doing that,” he said.

Democratic Assemblyman Harvey Munford, a former dues-paying ACORN member who received an award for his efforts on behalf of the organization, said the group was, at one time, “the most solid organization” in his district. Munford marched with members several times to City Hall, supporting such campaigns as the effort to bring a supermarket to West Las Vegas.

But now, he said he “would be more cautious” about supporting the group’s efforts.

Still, Bonnie Greathouse, one of two paid staff members at the local ACORN office and its lead organizer, said hundreds of local members remain focused on their nuts-and-bolts issues.

“Anytime I say I’m from Nevada ACORN and people say, ‘You’re in the news,’ I say, ‘You couldn’t pay for that publicity,’ ” she noted last week at the group’s office in Commercial Center on Sahara Avenue, east of the Strip.

Marjorie Byrd, a member of an ACORN chapter near Charleston Boulevard and Boulder Highway, said her group is working to gain access to CAT vans for the handicapped. Byrd, who uses a motorized wheelchair, said the transportation company rejected her application, but ACORN taught her and others in the chapter how to fight in the political arena for access to the specialized bus system.

Volunteer Hank Houston said he was spreading the word to churches to tell their congregations that “ACORN does good work.” If the local office is forced to cut back services, Houston wants the community to know that “low-income people will be affected.”

•••

ACORN’s legal team, meanwhile, is mounting a vigorous defense in the criminal case here.

Crawford said the group views the prosecution as a means of vindicating itself.

“We really believe the facts are on our side, and the state’s interpretation of the law is ridiculous,” she said. “Their interpretation would make it impossible for anyone to run voter registration drives.”

Crawford said the attorney general’s star witness against ACORN, former Las Vegas field director Christopher Edwards, carried out the “blackjack” program without the authority of the national office.

“Not a single other office anywhere in the country had a bonus system like he had,” Crawford said. “He acted alone.”

ACORN’s Las Vegas attorney, Lisa Rasmussen, said the group’s overall incentive policy was designed to maintain quality control over the gathering of registration cards, not encourage fraud.

“It was a reward for high-quality, consistent work,” she said. “It wasn’t just about numbers.”

Rasmussen said she will be filing court papers seeking to dismiss the criminal charges on grounds the state law is unconstitutional and a violation of ACORN’s First Amendment rights, which include the right to petition and gather signatures.

In Las Vegas, as it has done in other cities, ACORN provided the Election Department with the names of canvassers who had submitted fraudulent registration cards, but in this case the Election Department did nothing about it, Crawford said.

“We kept turning in people to the Election Department, but the authorities never prosecuted those people,” she said. “Instead, the secretary of state’s office investigated us.”

Miller said the state couldn’t prosecute individual canvassers because there was so little transparency in the voter registration process that investigators were unable to determine which canvassers had turned in fraudulent forms.

Investigators stepped up their scrutiny of ACORN following an October 2008 raid on the group that turned up an organization manual and other documents that supported the allegations ACORN was violating the voter registration compensation law, Miller said.

For ACORN’s part, Henderson, its regional director, said the Las Vegas office will continue to help the poor with their problems.

“The reason we’re being attacked is because we’re so effective,” he said. “Organizing is our best strategy for fighting back.”

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