Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2019

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In deal, ex-ACORN official promises to testify against others

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Catherine Cortez Masto

Beyond the Sun

The attorney general’s office turned up the heat Monday on a national organization at the heart of a voter registration fraud investigation.

Christopher Edwards, 33, the former Las Vegas field director for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, pleaded guilty to two gross misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to commit the crime of compensation for registration of voters.

As part of a plea agreement, Edwards will testify against the other two defendants in the case — ACORN and its former regional director, Amy Busefink.

The anti-poverty organization has local chapters in 100 cities across the country and national offices in New Orleans, New York and Washington.

State investigators consider Edwards the mastermind of an illegal incentive program at the local ACORN office that, with the approval of Busefink and national ACORN officials, encouraged the collection of fraudulent voter registration forms during the 2008 campaign season.

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said late Monday that Edwards has “agreed to admit his culpability, accept his punishment, and provide valuable testimony against the others involved.”

But Las Vegas lawyers for ACORN and Busefink said they doubted Edwards’ testimony would hurt their clients because ACORN officials were kept in the dark about what he was doing.

“I’m not concerned about it,” said Lisa Rasmussen, who represents ACORN. “He was doing something he shouldn’t have been doing.”

Kevin Stolworthy, who represents Busefink, added, “I don’t believe they have anything in writing supporting what he’s going to testify about. Our position is, he was told not to do it.”

In his plea agreement, however, Edwards said that from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31, 2008, he unlawfully conspired with ACORN and Busefink to create a local bonus incentive program, known as “Blackjack,” giving ACORN canvassers an additional $5 for turning in 21 or more registration cards per shift. ACORN allegedly required its workers to submit at least 20 voter registration forms a day to keep their jobs.

It is illegal in Nevada to attach incentives to gathering registration forms because it encourages canvassers to submit fraudulent forms.

When the indictments were announced in May, Cortez Masto said that by structuring the compensation around a quota system, “ACORN facilitated voter registration fraud in the state.”

About the same time in Pittsburgh, a half-dozen ACORN workers were charged with violating a similar Pennsylvania law prohibiting quotas and other incentives in voter registration drives.

That case was put on hold last month after the American Civil Liberties Union there filed suit on behalf of ACORN challenging the constitutionality of the state law.

Edwards’ cooperation here is not expected to have an effect in Pennsylvania, but ACORN has a lot more riding on the outcome of the Nevada case. The organization is not charged in Pittsburgh, but is facing 13 felony counts in Las Vegas.

Edwards’ first opportunity to testify against ACORN and Busefink will come Sept. 29 at a preliminary hearing to determine whether ACORN and Busefink should stand trial.

In return for his testimony, the attorney general’s office is dismissing 13 felony charges against Edwards and recommending probation for concurrent sentences of one year behind bars on the two gross misdemeanor charges, a $500 fine and 16 hours of community service.

Edwards appeared before Kevin Williams, the district court’s arraignment master, on Monday wearing a shirt and tie and dress slacks. When Williams asked Edwards what his plea was, he responded, “Guilty” in a soft voice.

As he left the courtroom with his lawyer at his side, Edwards declined to comment.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Conrad Hafen, who is prosecuting the case, also had no comment afterward.

The case dates back to Oct. 7, when state investigators, armed with a search warrant, first sought evidence of voter registration fraud at ACORN’s Las Vegas office.

Allegations that some registration applications were completed with false information and that other applications were attempts to register the same person several times led investigators to raid the office, officials said at the time.

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