The brains behind an illegal voter-registration incentive program that led to felony charges against ACORN, a national grass-roots community organizing group, was sentenced Monday to three years of probation.
Christopher Edwards pleaded guilty in August to two gross misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to commit compensation for registration of voters. As part of the plea deal, the state attorney general's office dropped 13 felony counts of compensation for registration of voters against Edwards in exchange for his testimony against ACORN and co-defendant Amy Busefink.
"I take responsibility for what I did," Edwards told District Judge Donald Mosley. "I'm sorry. I truly am. It definitely will never happen again."
Mosley ordered Edwards to pay a $500 fine and work 16 hours a month of community service during his probation period.
Mosley also ordered Edwards, who said he is unemployed, to try to find a job.
The plea agreement called for 16 hours of community service total, but Mosley increased it to 576 hours.
The judge said that if Edwards violates the conditions of his probation, he will have to serve a year in jail.
Mosley seemed to suggest that the sentence would have been harsher if the plea agreement didn't call for Edwards to testify against Busefink and ACORN.
"That is the primary reason that I am acquiescing to these negotiations," Mosley said. "From what I read here, I was not pleased, to say the least."
Prosecutors say ACORN and Busefink permitted Edwards, the group's Las Vegas field director during the 2008 election cycle, to run an illegal cash incentive program to encourage employees to register voters.
ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, also had an illegal quota policy that forced employees to register a certain number of people per shift or face termination, authorities say.
Such incentive programs and quota systems 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."
The program, called Blackjack or 21-Plus, rewarded employees with $5 extra per shift if they brought in 21 or more completed voter registration cards.
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.
A trial for Busefink and ACORN has been set for April 19 before Mosley. Defense attorneys are planning to file motions to dismiss the case because they claim the law is vague and unconstitutional.
Defense attorneys for both ACORN and Busefink have maintained their clients' innocence and said Busefink and ACORN officials had ordered Edwards not to run the incentive program.
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.
ACORN portrays itself as an advocate for tens of thousands of low-income and minority homebuyers and community residents who are served by offices around the country.
Republicans describe the group, whose political arm endorsed Barack Obama for president, as a pro-Democratic group that violated the tax-exempt status of some of its affiliates by engaging in partisan political activities.
Obama, whose campaign paid an ACORN subsidiary hundreds of thousands of dollars for canvassing work, and Republican nominee John McCain sparred over the role of the group in the elections.
More recently, several of the group's offices were the subject of a hidden-camera sting in which ACORN employees were shown advising a couple posing as a prostitute and her pimp to lie about her profession and launder her earnings.
The videos sparked a political uproar, with Republicans trying to use the group's troubles to portray Democrats as corrupt. Congress has since slashed ACORN's funding.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact reporter Francis McCabe at fmccabe@ reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.