Alleging fraud, authorities raid voter group
ACORN's canvassers filled out forms with fake names, addresses, officials say
By ADRIENNE PACKER and MOLLY BALL
State authorities on Tuesday raided an organization that registers low-income people to vote, alleging that its canvassers falsified forms with bogus names, fake addresses or famous personalities.
The secretary of state's office launched an investigation after noticing that names did not match addresses and that most members of the Dallas Cowboys appeared to be registering in Nevada to vote in November's general election.
"Some of these (forms) were facially fraudulent; we basically had the starting lineup for the Dallas Cowboys," Secretary of State Ross Miller said. "Tony Romo is not registered to vote in Nevada. Anyone trying to pose as Terrell Owens won't be able to cast a ballot."
Agents with the secretary of state and state attorney general offices served a search warrant on the headquarters of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, at 953 E. Sahara Ave. shortly after 9 a.m. They seized voter registration forms and computer databases to determine how many fake forms were submitted and identify employees who were responsible.
They also sought information regarding current and past employees and managers.
"We don't know how many (falsified forms) are here; there may be two, or there may be thousands," said Bob Walsh, spokesman for the secretary of state's office.
Registration fraud typically stems from workers striving to meet their daily quota of submitted voter forms, Miller said.
Most organizations require their workers to sign up 20 voters a day. Fraudulent forms start filtering in when workers struggle to meet their quota and either fill in bogus names or accept documents with names that are clearly falsified, Miller said.
In a statement released by ACORN on Tuesday, Interim Chief Organizer Bertha Lewis said the group based in Clark County routinely flagged suspect applications and notified the Clark County Election Department. The group provided state and county officials with the names of individuals who submitted the falsified registration forms.
"Election officials routinely ignored this information and failed to act," Lewis said. "ACORN pleaded with them to take our concerns about fraudulent applications seriously."
In late July, election officials requested copies of the same documents that previously had been handed over by ACORN, Lewis said. In September, ACORN received a subpoena requesting information on 15 employees, whose names already had been turned in to election officials by the organization.
"Today's raid by the secretary of state's office is a stunt that serves no useful purpose other than to discredit our work registering Nevadans and distracting us from the important work ahead of getting every eligible voter to the polls," Lewis said.
Miller said that is not the case. He said the state's investigation began before ACORN submitted the forms referred to in Lewis' statement. In early July, investigators began looking through ACORN's registration forms. One canvasser turned in 17 applications; only four addresses existed, the investigators alleged.
According to an affidavit filed by the secretary of state, the canvasser was interviewed and told investigators that meeting the daily quota was difficult because it was hot outside and potential voters rejected her invitation to register.
Other canvassers hired by ACORN were residents at the Casa Grande Transitional Housing Facility, a Nevada Department of Corrections institution that offers convicted felons an opportunity to take part in work-release programs.
"It raises significant concerns that they hired prison inmates, some of whom have been convicted of identity theft," Miller said.
ACORN's field director in Nevada and the head of its voter registration effort, known as Project Vote, said the agency is cooperating fully with the investigation.
"We're proud of what we did here," Chris Edwards said. "We've got nothing to hide."
Tuesday morning's raid came on a day when ACORN had been planning a news conference and potluck lunch to celebrate the culmination of its voter registration drive, which the group said resulted in 90,000 new registrants since February, and to launch a get-out-the-vote push for the election.
The event went ahead around noon, starting with a pep talk of the group's staffers and volunteers, who stood to testify to the mission of the enterprise and who said they would remain undaunted.
"This is a great organization," Bonnie Smith-Greathouse, head organizer for Nevada ACORN, told a group of about 15 gathered in front of the organization's office. "We've done great things in the community, and we're going to do even greater things in the future."
Smith-Greathouse suggested that powerful interests were trying to squelch the voices of the poor that ACORN is trying to empower.
"Project Vote has been attacked all over the country because we registered at least 1.2 million voters," she said. "That could sway an election. You should be very proud. Something so significant in history has never happened in Nevada before."
Edwards stressed the mission of empowering those on society's lower rungs. "We don't go to Trader Joe's to register voters," he said. "We don't go to Macy's or Whole Foods. We sign people up to vote at welfare offices. We sign people up at post offices in poor neighborhoods."
ACORN's voter registration drive has consisted of recruiting people from off the street, many of them down-and-outers desperate for work, with the promise of $8 an hour for often grueling work. The canvassers were required to be on their feet, flagging down potential registrants, often in the 100-plus-degree heat of the Las Vegas summer.
Although they were not paid a set fee per registration form collected, which is illegal, they had to meet certain quotas of registrations each day, which is legal.
Clark County Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax, who has been speaking out about the fraudulent submissions and passing them along to the secretary of state's office for months, said under those circumstances, there was an obvious temptation for workers to duck into an air-conditioned library, for example, and start copying out of the phone book or off a sports roster.
"Anybody who decides they're going to pay people to go out and register voters is basically opening themselves up to that," he said. Lomax said he did not think there was a systematic attempt to submit phony forms.
Once turned in, the voter registration forms are subject to a verification process by Lomax's office.
People whose forms listed phony or business addresses would have been sent a letter advising them they would be voided if they didn't respond within 15 days. People who didn't list a driver's license or Social Security number that matched their name and address would be flagged on the voter rolls and required to bring photo identification to the polls to be allowed to vote.
Because of the safeguards, Lomax said he was confident no one will vote who shouldn't be allowed. "People don't need to fear for the integrity of this election," he said.
ACORN said it had a quality-control operation of its own in place to check registration forms before they were turned in. Joe Camp, who was in charge of the effort, said he would call the phone number the registrant had listed and ask whether the information on the form was correct.
"To my standards, to ACORN's standards, everything that was turned in to the Board of Elections was legitimate," said Camp, a 28-year-old Las Vegan who said he previously worked as a real-estate appraiser.
Lomax said he has seen some evidence of quality control on ACORN's part this year. The registration forms legally cannot be discarded or destroyed, and some would be turned in with a note saying that they appeared to be fraudulent and that the canvasser had been fired, but that was "by no means the majority" of the suspect forms, Lomax said.
ACORN is a nonpartisan organization, but it is affiliated with a political action committee that has endorsed Democrat Barack Obama in the presidential election. The Nevada authorities spearheading the investigation, Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, are both Democrats.
Obama's work as a community organizer in Chicago in the early 1990s was with Project Vote, but his campaign said it was not affiliated with ACORN at the time. Obama also was part of a team of lawyers representing ACORN in 1995 in a lawsuit that accused the state of Illinois of putting up barriers to poor people trying to register.
A spokeswoman for Obama's campaign would not comment on his past ties to the group but said the work ACORN is now engaged in is separate from the campaign.
"The Obama campaign is not affiliated with nor do we work with ACORN," Kirsten Searer said. "We have our own, separate voter registration campaign."
Republicans seized on the news of Tuesday's raid. The Clark County Republican Party issued a statement condemning voter fraud and calling for full prosecution of anyone responsible.
ACORN's other major activity is housing aid, for which it is eligible for federal grants from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac under newly enacted affordable-housing provisions.
Nevada Sen. John Ensign, a Republican, on Tuesday called for the suspension of the affordable housing funds because they might be going to "controversial groups like ACORN."
Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, also a Republican, said the ACORN problem was evidence Nevada needs a law requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls. Assembly Minority Leader Heidi Gansert, R-Reno, has proposed such a bill to be considered by the 2009 Legislature.
In the interim, Miller urged residents who registered with third parties to check the Nevada secretary of state's Web site to reaffirm their voting status. The deadline to register for the November election is Oct. 14. New registrations must be submitted in person at the Clark County Government Center or the Clark County Election Department.