Spokespeople for Nevada's top federal and state law enforcement authorities have staked out different positions when asked whether federal officials are involved with a voter registration fraud investigation of the community activist group ACORN.
Most media outlets have reported the investigation as solely a state matter. If federal agents and prosecutors are involved with that investigation, their actions in Nevada could become part of a larger debate taking place in Congress and elsewhere over claims that the Department of Justice is responding to political pressure by intervening improperly in election-related matters.
The disagreement concerns an "Election Integrity Task Force" convened last July to investigate "voter registration and election fraud." That task force includes representatives of two state agencies (the Nevada Secretary of State and state Attorney General) and two federal agencies (the U.S. Attorney for the District of Nevada and the F.B.I.).
On October 7, state officials executed a search warrant on the Las Vegas office of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now ("ACORN"), seizing the group's files and computers. Press outlets widely reported the raid as a state-run operation, but Bob Walsh, a spokesman for the Nevada Secretary of State and, on matters pertaining to the task force, for the state's Attorney General, told OffTheBus the same day that the federal officials' absence at the raid itself did not mean they were uninvolved in the larger investigation:
The ongoing investigation is done as a cooperative effort between those two agencies as well as the FBI and the U.S. Attorneys office, but the FBI and the US Attorney were not there this morning simply because I think they had, you know, manpower issues.... They had other places they needed to be. It wasn't like they needed to surround the place like a SWAT team or anything."
Later that day, the Nevada Secretary of State, Ross Miller, issued a press release in which Miller called the raid "part of an ongoing investigation by the multijurisdictional task force that we announced this past July" and said that "[t]he task forced [sic] received information which the investigators further developed."
However, Natalie Collins, the spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney for the District of Nevada, disagreed with those press releases and official statements. Collins told OffTheBus that not only were the U.S. Attorney's office and F.B.I. uninvolved with the execution of the search warrant on Oct. 7, but that neither the federal agencies nor the joint federal-state election fraud task force itself has played any role in the the investigation of ACORN in Nevada.
Collins declined Friday to speak on behalf of the F.B.I., and while an F.B.I. representative later contacted by OffTheBus did acknowledge that the agency is a member of the election integrity task force, he would not comment on whether the agency was involved in the specific investigation of ACORN in Nevada. However, in another email Monday, Collins asserted that neither the U.S. Attorney's Office nor the F.B.I. -- both of which are parts of the larger U.S. Department of Justice -- was involved with the ACORN investigation, and also denied again that the election integrity task force is involved in that investigation:
"The task force was formed to facilitate coordination between agencies, but not every investigation is a 'task force' investigation. The subject investigation is being pursued by the state (SOS office), and the US Department of Justice (FBI and USAO) have not been, and are not, at the present time, involved with it."
In what appears to be a direct contradiction of Collins' statements, however, the state agencies' spokesman, Walsh, reaffirmed Monday that the ACORN investigation does involve the full task force, which includes the two federal agencies. In an email to Walsh, OTB asked:
"I would like to double-check the accuracy of the press release you issued on Oct. 7, in which [Nevada Secretary of State] Ross Miller is quoted as saying that the investigation of ACORN was by the full task force...
'This is part of an ongoing investigation by the multi jurisdictional task force that we announced this past July," said Miller. ... The task forced received information which the investigators further developed.'
Is that quote by Miller still good info?"
"That quote is still good."
The federal law enforcement agencies' possible involvement is significant because some Democrats, including House Judiciary Committee chair John Conyers, have accused the D.O.J. of using ACORN as a whipping-boy for partisan attacks, and some Republicans, including six senators who renewed their call Friday for the Senate Judiciary Committee to hold hearings into ACORN's voter registration activities, have tried to deflect claims of partisanship by asserting that the Nevada investigation and raid were instigated solely by Democratic state officials. Any involvement by the U.S. Attorney in an investigation of ACORN also could revive concerns, currently being explored by an independent prosecutor, that federal prosecutors may be responding to political pressure rather than exercising independent judgment.
The assertion that the election fraud task force is not involved with the ACORN investigation is somewhat surprising, given that the task force was formed shortly after the state began its investigation of ACORN and that the mission of the task force, according to press releases and statements by the state and federal officials involved, seems to include the sorts of misconduct ACORN and some of its employees are accused of. However, Collins declined Monday to explain why both the election fraud task force and federal officials were abstaining from the investigation of the group most widely associated in recent weeks with voter registration fraud claims.