Las Vegas Sun

January 16, 2022

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Lawyer calls ACORN ‘hated, feared,’ seeks separate trials

Judge denies motion to separate case, saying trials would be identical

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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.

Lawyers for the woman accused by the Nevada attorney general’s office of approving questionable voter registration tactics told a Clark County District Court judge Wednesday that the bad publicity swarming around her co-defendant – the grassroots organizing group ACORN – would make it impossible for her to receive a fair trial.

At a Wednesday hearing, lawyers for Amy Busefink asked for her case to be severed from ACORN’s so the two could stand trial separately. ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and Busefink are facing 13 felony counts related to allegations they authorized the use of cash incentives as a motivation for workers to register more voters.

Judge Donald Mosley denied the motion to sever, saying he didn’t see a need for two “carbon-copy” trials. He also said it would be impossible to try Busefink without discussing ACORN at her trial so there would be no way to insulate her from ACORN’s reputation.

If convicted, Busefink likely would face probation or less than one year in jail. ACORN could see a $5,000 fine.

Bradley Scott Schrager, one of Busefink’s attorneys, said Wednesday that the bad press ACORN has been subjected to would make it difficult for a jury to independently assess “Amy’s guilt or innocence (while she is) sitting next to what is basically an American pariah organization.”

He gave the analogy of a person standing trial in 1952 alongside the Communist Party during the Red Scare. As the human face on trial, Busefink would bear the brunt of any ill will toward the organization, he said.

“Sitting next to the most hated, most feared, most reviled organization in the country is in itself a danger to this process,” Schrager said.

Nevada Chief Deputy Attorney General Conrad Hafen is the lead prosecutor in the case. During the hearing, Hafen said Busefink’s attorneys hadn’t met their burden of proof in asking for the trials to split.

“That’s basically their argument – that she can’t get a fair trial because she’s going to be found guilty by association with ACORN, and that’s simply not a reason to grant a severance,” Hafen said.

Attorney Lisa Rasmussen, who is representing ACORN in the case, said she had no position on whether the case should be severed. Another case kept her from appearing at Wednesday’s hearing.

Rasmussen said she and Busefink’s attorneys are planning by the end of the week to file motions to dismiss the case.

The trial is scheduled to begin July 19. It originally was slated for April, but was postponed at a January hearing.

Busefink was a regional manager for Project Vote, which worked with ACORN during the 2008 election season.

The Nevada attorney general’s office has accused ACORN and Busefink of operating an illegal bonus system, which Busefink, as a manager, is alleged to have approved of.

Former ACORN field director Christopher Edwards pleaded guilty last year to two gross misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to commit the crime of compensation for registration of voters in connection with the case. He was sentenced to three years of probation and will testify against Busefink and ACORN at trial.

ACORN Communications Director Kevin Whelan issued a statement after the hearing. ACORN describes itself as the nation's largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families.

“ACORN is extremely proud of the work we did to help hundreds of thousands of American citizens become active voters in 2008 and before,” Whelan said. “It is certainly true that we have been attacked for our voter registration work, but will never apologize for bringing young people, African Americans, Latinos and poor people into our democracy.

“Politically motivated charges against our work have proved bogus time and again. We expect to be vindicated in Nevada as we have been, in various ways by the a Congressional study, the federal courts, and an independent audit of all our procedures.”

ACORN officials have said Edwards acted alone in developing and carrying out the program, called “blackjack” or “21+.”

The attorney general’s office said that under the quota system, canvassers were paid based on the number of voter registration cards they collected each day. The canvassers were to gather at least 20 completed cards daily and anyone who turned in 21 or more would be given an extra $5.

Tying money to or setting quotas for collecting voter registration cards is illegal under Nevada law.

“This (case) is happening at a moment in our political culture in which ACORN is an easy target. And by association, now, so is our client,” Schrager said after the hearing.

“ACORN is about as hated an organization as there is in the country right now – maybe ever in American history. And that makes it very difficult for Amy Busefink as an individual to be separated in a jury’s mind so that the evidence, whatever evidence, the state has against her can be heard on its own terms.”

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