Lawyers for the grass-roots community organizing group ACORN and its staff scoffed Tuesday at a plea agreement state prosecutors made with the man alleged to be the mastermind of a phony voter registration scheme.
"I think that it shows you how weak their case is," Lisa Rasmussen, attorney for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, said. "They must be really desperate if they are trying to make a deal with the person most responsible."
In exchange for the state attorney general's office dropping 13 felony counts of compensation for registration of voters, Christopher Edwards pleaded guilty Monday to two gross misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to commit compensation for registration of voters. He agreed to testify against defendants Amy Busefink and ACORN.
As part of the plea agreement, the state will recommend at sentencing on Nov. 17 that Edwards be put on probation, pay a $500 fine and perform 16 hours of community service.
Edwards was ACORN's Las Vegas field director during the 2008 election season and admitted to creating the bonus program at the heart of the voter registration controversy, according to court documents.
Busefink's defense attorney, Kevin Stolworthy, said Tuesday that state prosecutors "are trying to work their way up the food chain, but the food chain stops with him (Edwards)."
Authorities alleged that Edwards ran an incentive program known as "Blackjack" or "21+" that rewarded employees with $5 extra per shift if they brought in 21 or more completed voter registration cards.
Such an incentive program is prohibited by Nevada law, which states it is "unlawful for a person to provide compensation for registering voters that is based upon the total number of voters a person registers."
ACORN is charged with 13 counts of compensation for registration of voters. Busefink, who was a regional director for ACORN, faces 13 counts of aiding the compensation for registration of voters. She is accused of approving the incentive program.
The secretary of state's office discovered the incentive program after a complaint from the Clark County registrar of voters that detailed how ACORN employees were submitting registrations with phony names and addresses.
Authorities said canvassers were under pressure to turn in at least 20 registration cards a day to keep their $8 to $9 an hour jobs.
One canvasser reportedly turned in the starting lineup of the Dallas Cowboys.
Attorneys for ACORN and Busefink said they plan on fighting the charges.
Rasmussen said that if Edwards "did anything improper, it certainly wasn't with our knowledge."
Stolworthy said his client not only told Edwards not to carry out the incentive program but sent an e-mail to Edwards telling him that.
Busefink's and ACORN attorneys have said Busefink ordered a halt to the "Blackjack" bonus after an August 2008 visit to the Las Vegas office.
State prosecutors have revealed little evidence to present against ACORN or Busefink.
During the investigation, Edwards said that Busefink told him the incentive program was a good idea and that during the visit she made no comment about the "Blackjack" bonus, according to court documents.
"I think it's going to boil down to a 'he said, she said' argument," Stolworthy said.
For the case against ACORN, state prosecutors have an e-mail from an ACORN official to Edwards with a payroll spreadsheet that documented who received a "Blackjack" bonus, indicating that the organization was aware of the program, according to court records.
Incentive programs that reward pay based on performance are against ACORN's policy, the group has said.
A preliminary hearing is scheduled for the end of September in Las Vegas Justice Court. Justice of the Peace William Jansen will decide whether enough evidence exists to bind Busefink and ACORN over for trial.
Chief Deputy Attorney General Conrad Hafen, the case's lead prosecutor, could not be reached Tuesday for comment.
The attorney general's office has not indicated whether the canvassers who turned in the false registration cards would be charged. Turning in such cards is a felony.
Contact reporter Francis McCabe at email@example.com or 702-380-1039.