ACORN, the controversial grass-roots community organizing group accused of participating in an illegal voter registration scheme, will stand trial on felony charges, a Las Vegas Justice of the Peace ruled Wednesday.
But before the trial, the untested Nevada law that ACORN and co-defendant Amy Busefink are charged with breaking probably will need to survive a myriad of legal challenges being planned by the defense.
Immediately after Justice of the Peace William Jansen ordered ACORN and Busefink to stand trial in District Court before Judge Donald Mosley, defense attorneys were planning motions to dismiss the case because they claim the law is vague and unconstitutional.
Prosecutors say ACORN and Busefink permitted a field director to run an illegal cash incentive program to encourage employees to register voters. Prosecutors say ACORN had an illegal quota policy that forced employees to register a certain number of people per shift or face termination.
Such an incentive program and quota system are prohibited by Nevada law, which says it is "unlawful for a person to provide compensation for registering voters that is based upon the total number of voters a person registers."
Lisa Rasmussen, attorney for ACORN, said she will file a motion to dismiss the charges as soon as possible. "And we will also be filing substantive motions challenging the statute on First Amendment grounds because we believe, as constructed, it violates the First Amendment right to petition and gather votes," she said.
Busefink's attorney, Kevin Stolworthy, maintained his client's innocence after Jansen's ruling.
"We're going to take it to trial. She's innocent," he said.
Jansen said the state attorney general's office had met the burden of slight and marginal evidence needed to bind the case over to District Court. His decision was based on witness testimony and payroll worksheets that cite the incentive program.
Christopher Edwards, ACORN's Las Vegas field director during the 2008 election who created the incentive program, testified at the preliminary hearing Tuesday that Busefink had verbally approved his scheme. Busefink is a longtime employee of Project Vote who worked in partnership with ACORN in 2008 and oversaw Edwards. Project Vote is a national grass-roots organization that aims to register voters.
The incentive program, called Blackjack or 21+, rewarded employees with $5 extra per shift if they brought in 21 or more completed voter registration cards.
Jansen also cited testimony given by twice-convicted felon Joseph Terry, who said Busefink told him the Blackjack program was still going on.
Jansen said he believed Edwards and Terry to be credible witnesses.
The Justice of the Peace also said an e-mail by an ACORN official to Edwards that referred to the Blackjack program showed the organization was aware of the program.
Jansen emphasized that the preliminary hearing wasn't about guilt or innocence.
"I think it's a question for a jury to determine," Jansen said.
He looked at the defense and added, "I know there are some other issues here that should be researched, argued and briefed. You have some valid issues."
An arraignment date of Oct. 14 was set.
ACORN is charged with 13 counts of compensation for registration of voters. Busefink faces 13 counts of aiding the compensation for registration of voters. Busefink faces mandatory probation if convicted. As an organization, ACORN can be fined a maximum of $5,000 per count if found guilty.
Edwards pleaded guilty in August to two gross misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to commit compensation. As part of the plea deal, the state attorney general's office dropped 13 felony counts of compensation for registration of voters against Edwards and he agreed to testify against Busefink and ACORN.
The secretary of state's office discovered the incentive program after a complaint from the Clark County registrar of voters detailed how ACORN canvassers were submitting registrations with phony names and addresses.
The attorney general's office has not filed charges against the canvassers who turned in the false registration cards because ACORN's faulty record system didn't allow investigators to track which registration card was handed in by which canvasser, authorities said. Turning in such cards is a felony.
According to Clark County records, ACORN generated 91,000 applications, but turned in 62,905 completed new voter registration applications in 2008. Of those, 28,097 were duplicates and 39,719 of the newly registered didn't vote.
ACORN recently garnered public scrutiny after videos were released showing organization staffers giving advice on how to evade federal taxes to conservative activists masquerading as a pimp and a prostitute. Since then, Congress has slashed funding to the organization.
Contact reporter Francis McCabe at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-1039.