Prosecutors, defenders skirmish in ACORN case


After a Las Vegas Justice of the Peace decided that ACORN, the controversial grass-roots organizing group, would stand trial on felony charges it didn't take long for prosecutors and defense attorneys to begin trading public shots.

The first broadside came from Chief Deputy State Attorney General Conrad Hafen.

He accused the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now of putting Nevadans in danger by hiring and unleashing on the public canvassers who were also convicted felons.

"ACORN placed Clark County residents in a position of potentially being harmed by these individuals who had felony convictions," Hafen said.

People who fill out voter registration cards and pass them along to canvassers give them access to sensitive personal information, including home addresses, phone numbers, full names, dates of birth, and the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, Hafen said.

But he added there was no indication that any of the convicts ACORN hired used the information collected during canvassing for identity theft or other crimes.

"Clearly the evidence shows that it was a potential," Hafen said. "ACORN as a corporation, I believe, should have had background checks done on these individuals and made that a policy. And they didn't do that. And I think that's part of the overall egregiousness of this case."

ACORN is accused of approving an illegal voter registration scheme during the 2008 election cycle. The case is based around a cash incentive program and quota system that allegedly violated state law.

During the summer of 2008, at least 59 convicted felons living at a Las Vegas halfway house were referred to ACORN by a state Department of Corrections contractor, Choices Group Inc., which coordinates employment and job training for inmates.

The inmates were subsequently hired to register voters around the valley, including at grocery stores or outside government buildings, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles or welfare offices.

At least one of the inmates hired by ACORN was convicted of identity theft, according to information released by the Department of Corrections.

And during a recent preliminary hearing in the ACORN felony case, two state witnesses who worked as canvassers for ACORN said they were convicted felons. Dwain Dennie said he was a convicted sex offender for incest and sexual assault on a victim under 16. Joseph Terry was a twice-convicted felon for burglary and attempted grand larceny.

ACORN officials and lawyers were quick to respond to Hafen's comments.

"I think that's the ultimate hypocrisy advanced by the state," ACORN defense attorney Lisa Rasmussen said. She said the agency was acting on behalf of the state Corrections Department, which approached ACORN with the idea of having inmates apply for jobs with the organization.

ACORN deputy political director Clare Crawford said, "It was actually the state of Nevada who asked us to hire a large number of those people. If the state is asking us to do it and then later criticizing us for it, that seems hypocritical."

Prisons officials have said they thought the inmates were employed to take surveys.

Of the 59 inmates who worked for ACORN, one had been fired for failing to meet a registration quota, but none had been fired for fraud, according to the Department of Corrections.

The secretary of state's office discovered the alleged cash incentive program after a complaint detailed how ACORN canvassers were submitting registrations with phony names and addresses. No charges were filed against the canvassers who turned in the false registration cards. It's a felony to do so.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Ross Miller attempted to change state law in the last legislative session to mandate training for voter registration groups, such as ACORN, and to prevent certain convicted felons from registering voters.

Assembly Bill 82 stated in part, "This bill prohibits a voter registration agency from employing a person whose duties will include the registration of voters if the person has been convicted of a felony involving theft, fraud or dishonesty."

Miller said it was "very alarming, what happened in the '08 election." Considering that a number of convicted felons were hired, "it's not altogether surprising that violations took place."

The legislation also increased the penalty for a number of election law violations, including felony falsification of voter registration cards.

The 44-page bill did not attempt to address or change the law ACORN is charged with breaking. ACORN faces 13 counts of compensation for registration of voters.

The bill was never voted on in the assembly and died.

Miller said he "absolutely" plans on bringing legislation to address these issues during the next legislative session.

Crawford said she understands public concern about giving out personal information to canvassers.

"However, I have not actually heard that the secretary of state has asked McDonalds, Burger King, Quiznos, Nordstrom and every other retail store that gives people access to credit card information and other personal information to address that issue," she said.

Crawford added, "We're an employer like every other employer in the state and we should be held to the same standard."

Contact reporter Francis McCabe at fmccabe@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-1039.

 

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