Jason Leopold: The Republican War Against ACORN
The Republican War Against ACORNby Jason Leopold
, t r u t h o u t | Report
(Illustration: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t)
In recent days, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other major news outlets have recounted the "troubled" history of the poor people's advocacy group ACORN, but left out the five-year anti-ACORN campaign led by White House adviser Karl Rove and other Republican operatives.
Dropped down the memory hole is the fact that ACORN was at the center of the so-called "prosecutor-gate" scandal, when the Bush administration pressured US attorneys to bring indictments over the grassroots group's voter-registration drives, then fired some prosecutors who resisted what they viewed as a partisan strategy not supported by solid evidence.
The latest furor over ACORN was touched off by conservative filmmaker James E. O'Keefe III and a right-wing columnist who posed as a couple planning to buy a house for use as a brothel and getting advice from a few ACORN employees, rather than being turned away.
The pair filmed their meetings at ACORN offices with a hidden camera, producing a video that brought to a fever pitch the long-simmering Republican war against ACORN. The video was trumpeted by Fox News and other right-wing news outlets, starting a stampede in the mainstream press and in Congress, where a majority of panicked Democrats joined the herd in approving legislation to strip ACORN of federal funds.
The stampede, which trampled ACORN and its mostly black and Hispanic organizing staff, soon pulled in President Barack Obama, who often has touted his work as a community organizer in his youth. In an interview last Sunday on ABC's "This Week," Obama told host George Stephanopoulos that ACORN "deserves to be investigated."
Yet, while bending to Republican demands to speak out against a poor people's group, Obama continued to resist the notion that powerful Republicans from the Bush administration deserved to be investigated for authorizing the use of torture against prisoners in the "war on terror."
In an interview with CBS's "Face The Nation," Obama downplayed the seriousness of an investigation authorized last month by Attorney General Eric Holder into several cases where CIA officers allegedly exceeded Justice Department guidelines during interrogations.
"I have said consistently that I want to look forward and not backward when it comes to some of the problems that occurred under the previous administration, or when it came to interrogations," Obama said. "My understanding is it's not even a criminal investigation at this point."
That juxtaposition is a stark example of how Republicans - aided by the giant megaphone of the right-wing media - continue to keep Democrats on the defensive, while evidence of Republican guilt gets little sustained attention except at a handful of Internet sites.
That pattern holds true even for issues connected to ACORN.
For instance, much less media interest followed the House Judiciary Committee's August release of Bush administration emails related to the role that Rove and other Bush administration officials played in the firings of nine US attorneys amid a Republican effort to target ACORN's voter-registration work during the 2004 presidential election.
Two of the nine US attorneys who were fired in 2006 were targeted because they refused to bring criminal charges against individuals affiliated with ACORN. The firing of another US attorney was due, in large part, to his refusal to convene a grand jury and secure a voter-fraud indictment against individuals, some of who were affiliated with ACORN.
A May 2, 2005 email from Rove deputy Scott Jennings to Tim Griffin, another Rove protégé, said that in the fall of 2004, Bernalillo County's Republican Sheriff Darren White and New Mexico Republican Party operatives Pat Rogers and Mickey Barnett turned over hundreds of "suspected fraudulent voter registration forms" handled by ACORN workers. The email was also forwarded to Leslie Fahrenkopf, Bush's associate counsel.
In 2004, New Mexico was considered a swing state in the Bush-Kerry race and Bernalillo County had been targeted by ACORN for a major grassroots effort to register voters, which resulted in about 65,000 newly registered voters, many of who were low-income people and minorities - groups that tend to vote for Democrats.
Sheriff White challenged the integrity of some of the names on the voter registration rolls, according to then-New Mexico US Attorney David Iglesias in his book, "In Justice: Inside the Scandal That Rocked the Bush Administration."White held a press conference along with other Republican officials in the county to call attention to the matter.
"The purported examples that were then produced included a woman who had correctly filled out two different registrations with slightly different signatures and another in which a husband, with his wife's permission, had signed her name to the form," Iglesias wrote. "It was demanded that I take action against what was perceived as rampant abuse of the system."
Iglesias said he established an election fraud task force in September 2004 and spent more than two months probing claims of widespread voter fraud in his state. In testimony before a Senate committee in 2007, Iglesias said the task force received about 108 complaints of alleged voter fraud through a hotline over the course of about eight weeks.
"Most of the complaints made to the hotline were clearly not prosecutable - citizens would complain of their yard signs being removed from their property and de minimis matters like that," Iglesias testified.
"Only one case of the over 100 referrals had potential. ACORN had employed a woman to register voters. The evidence showed she registered voters who did not have the legal right to vote. The law, 42 USC 1973 had the maximum penalty of 5 years imprisonment and a $5,000 fine.
"After personally reviewing the FBI investigative report and speaking to the agent, the prosecutor I had assigned, Mr. [Rumaldo] Armijo, and conferring with [a Justice Department official] I was of the opinion that the case was not provable. I, therefore, did not authorize a prosecution.
"I have subsequently learned that the State of New Mexico did not file any criminal cases as a result of the" election fraud task force.
Iglesias said Republican officials in his state were far less interested in election reforms and more intent on suppressing votes. He wrote in his book that the Justice Department issued a directive to every US attorney in the country to find and prosecute cases of voter fraud in their states during the height of hotly contested elections in 2002, 2004 and 2006, even though evidence was thin or nonexistent.
During this period, ACORN had stepped up its voter registration efforts and boasted in press releases about registering tens of thousands of first-time voters.
Iglesias said that in late summer 2002 he received an email from the Justice Department suggesting "in no uncertain terms" that US attorneys should immediately begin working with local and state election officials "to offer whatever assistance we could in investigating and prosecuting voter fraud cases."
Pressure also came from congressional and state Republicans. In New Mexico, Barnett, Rogers and White were among Republican operatives who complained directly to Rove at the White House and to officials in Bush's Justice Department that Iglesias would not prosecute ACORN employees. These unhappy Republicans demanded that Iglesias be replaced.
According to a report by the Justice Department's inspector general released last year, "In a March 2006 email forwarded to [Craig] Donsanto in the [Justice Department's] Public Integrity Section, Rogers complained about voter fraud in New Mexico and added, 'I have calls in, to the USA [U.S. Attorney] and his main assistant, but they were not much help during the ACORN fraudulent registration debacle last election.'"
In June 2006, Rogers sent Iglesias's Executive Assistant US Attorney Rumaldo Armijo an email which said, "The voter fraud wars continue. Any indictment of the Acorn woman would be appreciated.... The ACLU/Wortheim [sic] democrats will turn to the camera and suggest fraud is not an issue, because the USA would have done something by now. Carpe Diem!" [Carpe Diem is translated, "seize the day."]
Despite positive job reports, Iglesias was fired in December 2006 as part of a purge of nine federal prosecutors who were deemed not to be "loyal Bushies," or had other supposed shortcomings.
Last August, Rove went on Fox News to downplay his role in Iglesias's firing, but acknowledged that he did pass on complaints to the Bush Justice Department about "the performance of the US attorney in New Mexico, that he failed to go after ACORN in clear cases of vote fraud."
The Republican war against ACORN didn't stop with Iglesias.
In Missouri, former US Attorney Todd Graves was another federal prosecutor who fell into disfavor with the Bush administration because of alleged inaction on ACORN and voter fraud issues.
Graves would not file criminal charges of voter fraud against four employees of ACORN, according to documents later released by the Justice Department in connection with the fired-prosecutors probe.
Graves also resisted pressure from Bradley Schlozman, head of the Bush Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, to file a lawsuit against Robin Carnahan, Missouri's Democratic Secretary of State, on charges that Carnahan failed to take action on cases of voter fraud, Graves testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007.
Graves was forced to resign in March 2006 and was replaced by Schlozman as Missouri's acting US attorney. Schlozman then filed the civil suit against Carnahan.
The case was later dismissed by a federal court judge who
"The United States has not shown that any Missouri resident was denied his or her right to vote as a result of deficiencies alleged by the United States. Nor has the United States shown that any voter fraud has occurred."
Schlozman also filed federal criminal charges of voter fraud against members of ACORN only days before the November 2006 midterm elections. The case was later dismissed and Schlozman came under criticism for breaking with longstanding Justice Department policy against bringing voter fraud charges close to an election.
Schlozman testified before a Senate committee in 2007 that he received approval to file the voter fraud charges from a Justice Department ethics official. The Justice Department recently declined to prosecute Schlozman on allegations that he perjured himself during his Senate testimony related to politicized hiring decisions.
Though the Republican war against ACORN contributed to the "prosecutor-gate" scandal, GOP operatives carried the fight into the 2008 presidential campaign, seizing on some ACORN employees who apparently were padding their registration numbers by submitting bogus forms with fake names like "Mickey Mouse."
For its part, ACORN has insisted that its own quality control flagged many of the suspicious registration forms before they were submitted to state officials and that state laws often require outside registration groups to submit all forms regardless of obvious problems.
Independent studies also have shown that phony registrations rarely result in illegally cast ballots because there are so many other safeguards built into the system.
For instance, from October 2002 to September 2005, a total of 70 people were convicted for federal election-related crimes, according to figures compiled by The New York Times last year. Only 18 of those were for ineligible voting.
That figure - 70 people - appears in a misleading report released July 23 , a little more than a month before the ACORN videos were broadcast on Fox News. The report was prepared by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-California, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform.
The report - entitled "Is ACORN Intentionally Structured As a Criminal Enterprise?" - cites, among other material, several dozen published reports from right-wing commentators and news organizations, including Fox News's Glenn Beck, and Breitbart.com, whose proprietor, Andrew Breitbart, worked closely with Beck and the filmmakers of the ACORN video to demonstrate the organization's involvement in widespread criminal acts related to voter fraud, tax evasion and racketeering.
In the report, Issa asserts that all 70 people he cites worked specifically for ACORN and were convicted of crimes. However, an in-depth search on Google and Lexis to support this claim does not turn up evidence; it produces only incarnations of the claim itself, which went viral and was picked up by the right-wing echo chamber of news organizations, talk radio and bloggers.
The actual conviction numbers Issa cites in his report don't add up to 70, and those cases weren't all convictions. Additionally, Issa cites employees who were charged or arrested on suspicion of registering bogus names on voter registration cards but it's unclear whether they were ever convicted.
According to an Oct. 18, 2008 report in FactCheck.org, "Neither ACORN nor its employees have been found guilty of, or even charged with, casting fraudulent votes," although "several ACORN canvassers have been found guilty of faking registration forms and others are being investigated. But the evidence that has surfaced so far shows they faked forms to get paid for work they didn't do, not to stuff ballot boxes."
Indeed, the cases suggest that ACORN was the intended victim of the attempted fraud, in that the phony registration forms were part of an effort by employees to exaggerate their work product.
"No evidence has yet surfaced to show that the ACORN employees who submitted fraudulent registration forms intended to pave the way for illegal voting. Rather, they were trying to get paid by ACORN for doing no work. Dan Satterberg, the Republican prosecuting attorney in King County, Wash., where the largest ACORN case to date was prosecuted, said that the indicted ACORN employees were shirking responsibility, not plotting election fraud."
The FactCheck.org report was prepared after Republican presidential candidate John McCain jumped on the anti-ACORN bandwagon, citing it at the third presidential debate. He declared ACORN "is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."
The McCain-Palin campaign put out a web ad titled "ACORN," which carried the verbal endorsement of McCain.
The ad asked, "Who is Barack Obama? A man with 'a political baptism performed at warp speed.' Vast ambition. After college, he moved to Chicago. Became a community organizer. There, Obama met Madeleine Talbot, part of the Chicago branch of ACORN. He was so impressive that he was asked to train the ACORN staff.
"What did ACORN in Chicago engage in? Bullying banks. Intimidation tactics. Disruption of business. ACORN forced banks to issue risky home loans. The same types of loans that caused the financial crisis we're in today.
"No wonder Obama's campaign is trying to distance him from the group, saying, 'Barack Obama Never Organized with ACORN.' But Obama's ties to ACORN run long and deep. He taught classes for ACORN. They even endorsed him for President.
"But now ACORN is in trouble."
The motive of Republicans in escalating the war on ACORN was suggested by a line in Rep. Issa's report - to delegitimize Obama. On page five, the report states: "Documents provided by former ACORN employees and contained in this report demonstrate the degree to which ACORN and ACORN affiliates organized to elect President Barack Obama in 2008."
In both today's ACORN attacks and those of the 2008 campaign, the major US news media has mostly ignored the connections to the "prosecutor-gate" case. Last year, the press focused on anecdotes like Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo's name showing up on one registration form.
The McCain campaign's attempt to politicize ACORN - and hype the danger of voter fraud - also paralleled the allegations made by Republicans during the final days of Campaign 2004.
In October 2004, Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign, called on Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry to demand that ACORN and other voter registration groups stop engaging in voter registration fraud. Racicot said these registration efforts would "ultimately paralyze the effective ability of Americans to be able to vote in the next election."
Two weeks before the 2004 presidential election, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and Ohio Republican Party Chairman Bob Bennett announced the formation of a media campaign to counter what they claimed was voter registration fraud in nine Ohio counties.
"The reports of voter fraud in Ohio are some of the most alarming in the nation," Gillespie said on October 20, 2004.
The attacks on ACORN for allegedly signing up phony voters served as a cover for Republican efforts to purge real voters from the voting roles, a tactic that became infamous in the battleground states of Florida and Ohio.
In Florida, another battleground state in 2004, President Bush's brother Jeb was governor, and the state's Department of Law launched a statewide probe into voter registration fraud just two weeks before the presidential election. A press release from the Department of Law cited ACORN, which registered more than 212,000 new voters in the state.
In the two weeks before Election 2004, GOP officials raised similar concerns in Colorado, Minnesota, New Mexico and Pennsylvania.
Now, having finally succeeded in dealing a severe blow to ACORN with the undercover videos, Republicans are trying to expand the stain to Obama. In a speech on the House floor on Thursday, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, called Obama "the star of ACORN, the lead, chief organizer.... He walks with them all the way through."
King then demanded that every House committee launch an investigation into ACORN and criticized "a lame little announcement" that the Justice Department would look into the group's activities.
At least two Democratic lawmakers, however, want to find out how the congressional backlash against ACORN will impact the low-income families and individuals the organization assists.
In a two-page letter sent Wednesday to Daniel Mullhollan, director of the Congressional Research Service (CRS), the investigative arm of Congress, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers and Rep. Barney Frank, chairman of the House Committee on Financial Services, requested that the CRS "research and issue a comprehensive report concerning proposed and pending Congressional and other activity related" to ACORN.
"Because of the recent charges and countercharges that have been leveled at ACORN and various proposals for action, we believe it is important that CRS conduct a careful and objective analysis of a number of issues concerning ACORN," the letter says.
Specifically, Conyers and Frank want CRS to provide details about the "pending and proposed [civil, criminal, congressional and internal] investigations" into ACORN, as well as requests for probes by lawmakers; details about the federal funds ACORN has received from various government agencies over the past five years; a description "of all instances, if any where ACORN violated the terms of its federal funding"; and the extent to which ACORN has helped place homeless and low-income families into homes.
Additionally, Conyers and Frank want the report to include details about the impact on elections from phony voter registration forms ACORN employees have filled out, and whether the undercover videos taken earlier this year at a few ACORN offices violated federal and state wiretapping laws.
Lastly, CRS was asked to determine whether the "Defund ACORN Act," an amendment sponsored by Issa that passed the House last week and other pieces of legislation aimed at specifically stripping ACORN of federal funds are unconstitutional or "represent an unlawful bill of attainder."
The claim that the "Defund ACORN Act" represented a bill-of-attainder violation was mentioned by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-New York, last week after the passage of the amendment.
"The Constitution says that Congress shall never pass a bill of attainder," Nadler said during a floor speech after last week's vote. "Bills of attainder, no matter what their form, apply either to a named individual or to easily ascertainable members of a group, to inflict punishment. That's exactly what this amendment does.
"It may be that ACORN is guilty of various infractions, and, if so, it ought to be vetted, or maybe sanctioned, by the appropriate administrative agency or by the judiciary. Congress must not be in the business of punishing individual organizations or people without trial."
Jason Leopold is the author of the Los Angeles Times bestseller, "News Junkie," a memoir. Visit www.newsjunkiebook.com for a preview.