LAS VEGAS — The political advocacy group ACORN and a former supervisor were ordered Wednesday to stand trial on charges that they illegally paid canvassers to register Nevada voters during last year's presidential campaign.
Evidence heard during more than six hours of testimony left "a lot of issues that have to be answered" before trial, Las Vegas Justice of the Peace William Jansen said.
He set arraignment for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now and former regional supervisor Amy Busefink for Oct. 14 in Clark County District Court.
"I think the statute is clear," Jansen said. "It's unlawful to provide compensation for the registration of voters that is based on the total number of voters that a person registers."
The judge referred to testimony that ACORN wanted to register 1.7 million new voters nationwide for the 2008 presidential election.
"To me, that is a quota," the judge said.
ACORN officials say they set goals, not quotas, and didn't necessarily punish canvassers who didn't meet them.
"There was no hard-and-fast standard we were holding employees to," ACORN regional organizer Matthew Henderson insisted after the judge's decision.
Lawyers for ACORN and Busefink said they will plead not guilty.
ACORN lawyer Lisa Rasmussen said outside court she was disappointed but argued that Deputy Nevada Attorney General Conrad Hafen needed only to prove only "slight or marginal" evidence to move the case to trial.
In court, Busefink's lawyer Kevin Stolworthy accused the state's star witness, Christopher Edwards, of creating and proceeding with an unauthorized bonus plan dubbed "blackjack."
"He tried to fly this under the radar," Stolworthy said.
Edwards, 33, was initially charged along with ACORN and Busefink. But in a plea agreement in August, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges in return for his testimony and a promise that he'll receive probation, a fine and community service.
Edwards testified during a hearing on Tuesday that ACORN supervisors knew and payroll records showed that canvassers making $8 per hour were paid "blackjack" bonuses of $5 per shift if they collected 21 or more voter registration cards last August and September.
Rasmussen and Stolworthy said the state law didn't apply because ACORN didn't actually register voters but turned registration forms over to county registrars.
Henderson said he was proud ACORN collected and submitted 91,000 registration forms to the Clark County Registrar of Voters last year.
"Nevada has one of the lowest registration rates in the country," Henderson said Wednesday. "Rather than do something about it, they're prosecuting those who did."
The Nevada criminal case could cost ACORN its nonprofit status in the state, and is one of several battles the community organizer is fighting nationally.
ACORN has been stung by the recent release of a videotape showing ACORN employees offering advice to two people posing as a prostitute and her pimp about cheating on taxes and operating a brothel.
Federal agencies including the Internal Revenue Service followed with declarations that they were severing ties with the organization, and Bank of America Corp. said it was suspending its work with ACORN's housing affiliate.
The defense asked the judge to dismiss at least four if not all of the 13 charges against their clients.
Jansen let stand all 13 felony counts against both ACORN and Busefink.
ACORN is charged with compensation for registration of voters.
Busefink, 27, of Seminole, Fla., is charged with principle to the crime of compensation for registration of voters. The judge allowed her to remain free without bail pending trial.
Both charges are low-level felonies carrying the possibility of a $5,000 fine for the nonprofit entity, and probation or less than one year in jail for Busefink.
Several other states investigated allegations that ACORN produced fake voter registration cards during the campaign between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, but Nevada was the first to file criminal charges.
Secretary of State Ross Miller has characterized the case as "registration fraud, not voter fraud." He said no voters in Nevada were paid for votes and no unqualified voters cast ballots.