The involvement of the U.S. Attorney's Office in a Tuesday morning raid on the Las Vegas offices of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now ("ACORN"), the community organization involved in registering more than 80,000 new Nevada voters, has raised suspicions that political pressure motivated the action.
The raid to uncover alleged registration fraud was the result of a joint investigation by state agencies, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A similar task force, convened in New Mexico in 2004 to investigate "vote fraud" complaints lodged by high-ranking Republicans, found no evidence of illegality. According to an independent government report issued last week, the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, David Iglesias, was later wrongfully fired by the Bush Administration for failing to prosecute the case despite the lack of evidence.
Tuesday's Las Vegas raid, executed morning by agents of the Nevada Secretary of State and state Attorney General, effectively shut down the ACORN office, at least temporarily. The state officials seized the group's files and computers less than a month before Election Day.
ACORN is a community activist organization involved in registering young, minority, and lower-income voters.
The Nevada raid comes the day after ACORN and another voter-registration group, Project Vote, announced a new initiative to identify and resolve problematic voter registrations to ensure maximum voter participation on Election Day. The Nevada Secretary of State's spokesman, Bob Walsh, told me this morning that he did not know when ACORN would regain access to its files and computers; ACORN officials say loss of their computers may hamper their "get out the vote" effort in Nevada, a key swing state this year.
ACORN has been targeted repeatedly in recent weeks by Republican Party spokesmen and surrogates, who contend that the group either intentionally or negligently allows its workers to turn in fraudulent registrations and "dumps" applications on elections officials at the last minute to overwhelm processes that screen out fraudulent registrations. On October 2, Republican National Committee ("RNC") communications director Danny Diaz said flatly that ACORN "is engaged in voter registration fraud," and within hours after the Associated Press reported the raid, the Republican National Committee distributed a link to the story in a press release under the headline "ALERT: Vote Fraud." The Nevada Secretary of State's spokesman today echoed the Republican Party's previous complaints when he described ACORN as having a "quota system" that encourages its workers to add false names to voter rolls.
ACORN, however, was quick to defend itself. In a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon, Matthew Henderson explained that its workers are paid by the hour, not per registration, and described the occasional workers who cheated as greedy or lazy, not political operatives:
"Listen, this is very hard work. We had people in Las Vegas out in 120 degrees registering voters this summer. We had, I would guess, maybe 700 people work on the drives in Las Vegas alone, and the lion's share of those folks were dedicated, hardworking members of our community who were doing this not just to earn a paycheck but because they believed in getting their neighbors registered to work. The fact is, this is hard work, and there were some people that probably sat down on the couch and filled out names out of the phone book. When we talk about fraud, that's really what we're talking about here: not an attempt to steal an election, we're talking about an attempt for someone to get out of doing some real hard work, and again, we're talking about a relative small number of people in comparison to all the hardworking people that helped us register 80,000 people in Las Vegas."
On a similar conference call with reporters Monday discussing what they viewed as a successful national voter registration drive, ACORN representatives -- unaware that the raid was about to occur the following day -- described their operations in a way that was consistent with their statements today, saying the organization does not use quotas or base its workers' pay on the number of registrations gathered or deliver registration applications at the last minute. The representatives also explained ACORN's quality assurance program -- which includes identifying and flagging any suspicious registrations for elections officials to investigate -- in detail:
Nevada Secretary of State spokesman Walsh admitted to me in a telephone call Tuesday that ACORN may indeed have an internal quality control operation that flags potentially fraudulent registrations for authorities. The affidavit supporting the search warrant used in Tuesday's raid also acknowledges ACORN's internal checks.
On Tuesday, ACORN officials also argued that the raid is misplaced given ACORN's own repeated, and unsuccessful, efforts to goad Nevada elections officials into acting on potentially fraudulent registrations. In a statement issued to Off The Bus Tuesday, ACORN's Interim Chief Organizer Bertha Lewis accused Nevada authorities of footdragging:
"Over the past year, ACORN has worked hard to help over 80,000 people in Clark County register to vote. As part of our nonpartisan voter registration program, we have review all the applications submitted by our canvassers. When we have identified suspicious applications, we have separated them out and flagged them for election officials. We have zero tolerance for fraudulent registrations. We immediately dismiss employees we suspect of submitting fraudulent registrations.
For the past 10 months, any time ACORN has identified a potentially fraudulent application, we turn that application into election officials separately and offer to provide election officials with the information they would need to pursue an investigation or prosecution of the individual.
Election officials routinely ignored this information and failed to act. In early July, ACORN asked to meet with election officials to express our concerns that they were not acting on information ACORN had presented to them. ACORN met with Clark County elections officials and a representative of the Secretary of State on July 17th. ACORN pleaded with them to take our concerns about fraudulent applications seriously. One week later, elections officials asked us to provide them with a second copy of what we had previously provided to them. ACORN responded by giving election officials copies of 46 'problem application packages,' which involved 33 former canvassers.
On September 23, ACORN had received a subpoena dated September 19th requesting information on 15 employees, all of whom had been included in the packages we had previously submitted to election officials. ACORN provided our personnel records on these 15 employees on September 29.
Today's raid by the Secretary of State's Office is a stunt that serves no useful purpose other than discredit our work registering Nevadans and distracting us from the important work ahead of getting every eligible voter to the polls."
In Tuesday's conference call, ACORN's Southwest Regional Director, Matthew Henderson, reiterated Lewis' frustration over Nevada's failure to respond to ACORN's complaints, saying the raid was done in part "to sort of cover up the fact that they have been asleep at the wheel for the past several months as we've provided them information that they could have acted on any time over the summer."
In response to my question, Henderson also described similarities between Tuesday's raid and the actions former New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was pressured to take in 2004 -- and was fired for refusing to take:
"Anyone who has read the report that was released by the Justice Department last week or has spoken with Mr. Iglesias knows that the task force in Nevada is a redo of a similar task force that had been set up in Albuquerque four years ago, and which the Justice Department report really shows was really used to further the political goals of ... the New Mexico Republican Party and their attempts to discredit our voter registration work. That is again why I look at the state actions in Nevada with a great deal of suspicion and disappointment, because I suspect something similar is going on. I think this is politically motivated; I think if the people behind it were really concerned about dealing with voter fraud they would have dealt with us months ago when we provided them with the same information that they are talking about today."
The U.S. Attorney Firings Connection:
The involvement of the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Nevada raid properly raises some red flags. Earlier this month, the U.S. Inspector General -- a nonpartisan governmental investigative office -- released a report on its investigation of the firings of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. That report concluded that at least some of the attorneys were fired for refusing to prosecute voter fraud cases that they had concluded lacked legal merit, and has led to the appointment of a special prosecutor, whose investigation is ongoing. (The U.S. Attorney for Nevada itself was also fired, but the Inspector General concluded that while voter fraud issues were raised in his case there was no evidence that they played a role in his firing as they were in the cases of other federal prosecutors.)
Most notably, the Inspector General concluded that David Iglesias, a Republican who served as U.S. Attorney in swing state New Mexico, was fired for refusing to bow to pressure from the state's Republican Party and Republican elected officials to prosecute ACORN for voter fraud there, even though he had convened a joint federal-state task force similar to Nevada's, looked carefully into the voter fraud allegations, and had concluded there was no basis to believe ACORN had acted illegally.
The targeting of ACORN by the New Mexico Republican Party was clearcut, according to the Inspector General, who reported:
In June 2006, [former New Mexico state Republican Party general counsel and party activist Patrick] Rogers sent the following e-mail to Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Armijo:
'The voter fraud wars continue. Any indictment of the Acorn [sic] woman would be appreciated.' (Inspector General's report, p. 170.)
In fact, the U.S. Attorney for New Mexico, David Iglesias, personally met with the Republican Party official, Rogers, to discuss ACORN, according to the Inspector General:
"On October 11, 2006, Iglesias met with Rogers to discuss voter fraud issues. The meeting was prompted by an e-mail Rogers sent to EAUSA Armijo on October 3, 2006, attaching an item from a local political blog that was critical of the Republican claim that election fraud was a growing crisis in New Mexico. Rogers wrote in his e-mail:
'[T]his is probably not the best time to remind you guys of the ACORN disasters, but I wanted to make sure you and David saw the Democrat's [sic] analysis of the task force. History being the lie generally agreed upon, [the blogger's] spin is the 'history' of fraud in NM. Call when you can."(Inspector General's report, pp. 176-7.)
Other Republican officials, including Representative Heather Wilson and U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, also pressured Iglesias to take action on "voter fraud."
However, Iglesias, whose task force reportedly investigated approximately 100 cases of alleged voter fraud and found none of them to have merit, declined to prosecute ACORN or anyone else - and, for that reason, was fired and replaced by another political appointee. The Inspector General's report concluded:
"In this section, we provide our analysis regarding the reasons proffered for Iglesias's removal. However, at the outset it is important to note that we were unable to fully investigate these issues because of the refusal by several former key White House officials, including Harriet Miers and Karl Rove, to cooperate with our investigation. In addition, the White House would not provide us any internal documents and e-mails relating to the removals of Iglesias or the other U.S. Attorneys. Our investigation was also hindered by the refusal of Senator Domenici and his Chief of Staff to agree to any interview by us. In addition, we were not able to interview Monica Goodling, who also declined to cooperate with our investigation. ***
However, ... we believe the evidence we uncovered showed that Iglesias was removed because of complaints to the Department of Justice and the White House by New Mexico Republican members of Congress and party activists about Iglesias's handling of voter fraud and public corruption cases. We concluded that the other reasons proffered by the Department [of Justice] after his removal were after-the-fact rationalizations that did not actually contribute to Iglesias's removal.
Moreover, we determined that the Department never objectively assessed the complaints raised by New Mexico politicians and activists about Iglesias's actions on the voter fraud ... cases, or even asked Iglesias about them. ***
As we discuss below, the these actions we believe Department leaders abdicated their responsibility to ensure that prosecutorial decisions would be based on the law, the evidence, and Department policy, not political pressure." (Inspector General's report, pp. 186-7.)
What's more, the decision to fire Iglesias, and other non-pliable U.S. Attorneys, appeared to have been made or approved by the White House; Congresswoman Wilson told the Inspector General that Karl Rove was involved in the decision:
"On November 15, 2006, Representative Wilson attended a White House breakfast meeting with a dozen or so Republican members of Congress who had just won closely contested elections. Rove was also present. Wilson told us that as the meeting was breaking up she approached him and said, 'Mr. Rove, for what it's worth, the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico is a waste of breath.' Rove responded, "That decision has already been made. He's gone.'" (Inspector General's report, pp. 185.)
The case of David Iglesias raises this important question: if New Mexico's U.S. Attorney was fired for insisting that "prosecutorial decisions [against ACORN and others] would be based on the law, the evidence, and Department policy, not political pressure," then what are we to think about the rectitude of Nevada's U.S. Attorney, who was appointed when others were being fired, when he acts on precisely the same kind of complaints against ACORN about voter fraud that Iglesias found not worthy of prosecution?
The fact that the raid was carried out solely by state officials does not mean that the involvement of federal authorities was secondary, according to Nevada Secretary of State's spokesman Walsh. Rather, he explained to me that the FBI and U.S. Attorney's office had staffing problems that kept them from participating in the search. The active involvement by federal officials in the ongoing investigation is significant, since Nevada's Secretary of State is a Democrat but the U.S. Attorney spearheading the task force is a Republican appointee named to replace another U.S. Attorney who was among those purged in a partisan scandal.
The joint task force's raid on ACORN's Nevada headquarters may prove to be founded on solid evidence. ACORN may be guilty of terrible wrongs, though to date they have never been convicted of any. But in light of the politicization of exactly this kind of task force, in exactly this kind of case, against exactly this organization, in a swing state less than a month before the election, it's patriotic, not partisan -- wise, not jaundiced -- to want to look closely at the evidence and to question whether the seizure of ACORN's computers and files, the day after it announces a new effort to correct faulty voter registrations, is itself a partisan political effort to deny Nevada's lower-income, minority, and younger citizens their right to cast ballots on November 4.