In response to news last week that the F.B.I. has launched a secret investigation of alleged voter registration fraud by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now ("ACORN"), John Conyers, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, has issued a hotly worded press release questioning the professionalism of the F.B.I. and questioning whether the investigation is politically motivated. Conyers tied the investigation to the now-discredited Republican effort in 2006 to force federal prosecutors to indict ACORN even in the absence of evidence of crimes and ultimately firing at least three of them illegally for refusing to prosecute nonexistent cases of voter fraud when pressured to do so by top Republicans.
Earlier Thursday, the Associated Press cited anonymous sources in reporting about the F.B.I.'s investigation:
The FBI is investigating whether the community activist group ACORN helped foster voter registration fraud around the nation before the presidential election.
A senior law enforcement official confirmed the investigation to The Associated Press on Thursday. A second senior law enforcement official says the FBI was looking at results of recent raids on ACORN offices in several states for any evidence of a coordinated national scam.
Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because regulatons [sic] forbid discussing ongoing investigations particularly so close to an election.
ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, says it has registered 1.3 million young people, minorities and poor and working-class voters--most of whom tend to be Democrats.
The fact that the story's sources requested anonymity raises suspicions that the leak, and possibly the investigation itself, are politically motivated. Republican operatives ranging from Congresspeople to lobbyists to John McCain himself have lobbed a barrage of attacks against ACORN in recent weeks, ostensibly over the fact that a relatively small number of ACORN's 13,000 voter registration workers have defrauded the organization by forging voter registration forms but, according to an increasing body of evidence, also because of ACORN's longstanding opposition to predatory and subprime lenders who support many Republicans who want to preserve a deregulated financial industry despite a meltdown in the unregulated mortgage market.
The timing of the leak so close to the election increases suspicions on ACORN's part that it is the victim of a coordinated political attack that is using pliant members of the U.S. Attorney's office and F.B.I. In a telephonic press conference held before news of the F.B.I. investigation broke, ACORN representatives complained that they had been asking prosecutors in various states for months to take action against employees who were defrauding them by falsifying registrations, but that officials delayed until shortly before the election -- at which point their own investigations were "spun" against ACORN by the RNC and others, who have cited information provided to authorities by ACORN as supposed proof of ACORN's complicity in the frauds. In a statement issued Thursday evening after the news broke, ACORN's Brian Kettenring compared the suspiciously-timed investigation (and leak) to the U.S. Attorney firings scandal, in which several federal prosecutors were fired for refusing to bow to political pressure to take the same kinds of action:
It is well established and documented that in 2004 the Bush Administration was involved in a scandal where Bush Administration political appointees, working in concert with the Department of Justice, pressured some U.S. Attorneys, such as David Iglesias, to pursue partisan investigations of ACORN. Given that in the last forty-eight hours we have seen a coordinated attack by the Republican Party, including a conservative think tank in Ohio connected to the well-known voter suppresser and McCain supporter Ken Blackwell, file a frivolous lawsuit that is virtually identical to the lawsuit filed in 2004 that was dismissed for lack of evidence, followed by Senator Voinovich, a supporter of Senator McCain, calling for a Justice Department investigation, followed by Senator McCain's attack in the debate last night, we believe that dirty politics are at work.
House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, in his own press release late Thursday, echoed that concern, calling the investigation and leak " troubling in light of the proven wrongdoing at the Justice Department in the United States Attorneys scandal."
The suspicions of improper political motives arise not just because of the timing, but also because ACORN has been exonerated in past investigations, and because the U.S. Attorneys and F.B.I. agents currently investigating ACORN are by definition ones who retained their jobs when others, resistant to improper political pressure, were fired. The "scandal" mentioned by both ACORN and Conyers refers to a Department of Justice Inspector General's report issued earlier this month that concluded former U.S. Attorney for New Mexico David Iglesias was fired in 2006 under political pressure from top-ranking Republicans, possibly including Karl Rove, for refusing to indict ACORN or its employees for voter fraud, even though a thorough investigation had yielded no evidence of prosecutable crimes. Two other U.S. Attorneys, in Washington and Missouri, were also fired for failing to aggressively prosecute alleged voter fraud. Allegations against ACORN were also mentioned, though not substantiated, in the investigation of the firing of the U.S. Attorney for Nevada, whose replacement is now spearheading an investigation and recent raid on ACORN's Las Vegas office.