While ACORN retreats across the nation, an upcoming voter registration fraud trial may reveal embarrassing information that hinders the ability of the embattled radical activist group to function.
The testimony will come as soon as next month from former ACORN Las Vegas field director Christopher Edwards. Charged with election fraud by Nevada's Democratic attorney general, he cut a deal last week with prosecutors and has pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit the crime of compensation for registration of voters.
ACORN allegedly enforced voter registration quotas with its employees and offered bonuses for extra registrations. Nevada law forbids the use of such incentives on the theory it encourages canvassers to file fraudulent registrations. No wonder: ACORN registers "Mickey Mouse" and various celebrities, out-of-state residents, and dead people, every election cycle.
As part of the plea deal, Edwards, whom state investigators consider to be the mastermind of the incentive program, has agreed to testify against former regional director, Amy Busefink, and against ACORN, which is a co-defendant. The Las Vegas Sun reported that Edwards acknowledged he conspired with Busefink and ACORN to create the "Blackjack" incentive program that gave canvassers an extra $5 for submitting 21 or more registration cards each day. The daily quota was allegedly 20 forms.
If ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) happens to be convicted, it could have its status as a nonprofit corporation revoked in Nevada, which could make it very difficult for the ACORN network to operate in that key battleground state.
Such a conviction would send shock waves through leftist organizing circles across the nation and might embolden more prosecutors to take on ACORN. Until it was charged by Nevada this year, ACORN had boasted about its ability to duck prosecution for election fraud.
Amy Schur, a senior ACORN official who has been in charge of the group's national campaigns, is likely to testify in the Nevada case, said Karen Inman of St. Paul, Minnesota, a former member of ACORN's national board.
Schur's testimony might be devastating to ACORN because it could publicly air many of the group's skeletons, suggested Inman, a lawyer by training.
That's because Schur has intimate knowledge of how ACORN operates and was one member of a group within ACORN including then-chief organizer and founder Wade Rathke that covered up a nearly $1 million embezzlement by Rathke's brother, Inman said. Wade Rathke was fired by the board last summer and ordered to sever all ties with ACORN. He has failed to do so. He is still, for example, chief organizer of SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans, an ACORN affiliate he founded.
Inman herself was ousted from the national board by management last fall after she asked too many questions about the embezzlement. Now she's one of the leaders of the "ACORN 8," a group of former ACORN members trying to reform ACORN.
Inman also made the point that ACORN is in turmoil throughout America.
Liz Wolf of Citizens Consulting Inc. (CCI), the shadowy financial nerve center of the ACORN network, has been negotiating with tax collectors on behalf of ACORN to have interest on its tax debts waived and to have some of the debts partially forgiven, Inman said.
CCI alone owes at least $400,000 in back taxes to the IRS, various states, and the District of Columbia. Collectively, the many affiliates within the ACORN network owe millions of dollars to tax authorities. The tax debts remain even after ACORN took a controversial payment from a developer in exchange for the group's support for a sports stadium and mixed-use complex in Brooklyn.
Experts say the taxes owed are probably employment taxes, the same taxes used to support the Big Government programs that ACORN is so enamored of. Always resourceful, ACORN is using its massive tax liabilities to cry poor and beg funders for more money.
According to Inman, so far this year ACORN has closed many of its offices nationwide. Offices in Ohio (Dayton and Columbus), Michigan (Grand Rapids), and Texas have closed their doors. The offices in Oakland, California, and in her hometown of St. Paul are barely operating, she said.
"This is the first time in Minnesota that the office has gone dormant after an election," she said.
ACORN is moving much of its operations out of its traditional headquarters in New Orleans to New York so executive director Steve Kest and chief organizer Bertha Lewis can exercise tighter control over the whole network, Inman explained.
Former ACORN employees are facing trial on election fraud charges in Pittsburgh, but those charges appear to be on hold now that the ACLU is challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania's voter registration law. ACORN remains under investigation by the local Democratic prosecutor in Cleveland, Ohio, after a grand jury indicted a local man for voting illegally after being registered multiple times by ACORN. The Louisiana attorney general's office is also investigating ACORN.
The Edwards plea bargain came the same week that CCI, the financial heart of the ACORN network, was accused of filing false lobbying disclosure reports with Congress. That revelation is important because, as former D.C. ACORN housing committee member Charles Turner said earlier this year, CCI "is where the shell game begins."
"ACORN has over 200 different entities that the money gets moved around to - for this purpose to that purpose, this organization to that organization," said Turner. "We believe the way the money has been moved around, they've been laundering money."
Federal lawmakers have known for years about ACORN's unorthodox practices including its use of government resources to promote legislation and its extensive commingling of funds within its network of affiliates.
Former ACORN officials say these activities are controlled by the mysterious CCI, which is located in ACORN's headquarters in New Orleans. CCI handles the financial affairs of hundreds of affiliates within the ACORN network. ACORN member dues, government money, and foundation grants, are all sucked into the CCI vortex often never to be seen again.
Earlier this month, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California), ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent an information request to the IRS about CCI, which he noted "simultaneously managed the accounts of political and private donor-funded organizations."
In the letter, Issa asked if "CCI's co-management of various tax-exempt and non-exempt affiliate accounts, many of which receive federal funds and some of which are 527s, violate[d]" the Internal Revenue Code. His follow-up question was, "If so, has the IRS taken steps to prevent CCI's co-management of affiliate accounts that are legally required to be separate and segregated?"
Issa's committee investigators released a report last month stating that ACORN "is a shell game played in 120 cities, 43 states and the District of Columbia through a complex structure designed to conceal illegal activities, to use taxpayer and tax-exempt dollars for partisan political purposes, and to distract investigators."
The report examines the ACORN network's abusive interlocking directorates, and claims that the group deliberately organized itself to escape legal and public scrutiny. "ACORN hides behind a paper wall of nonprofit corporate protections to conceal a criminal conspiracy on the part of its directors, to launder federal money in order to pursue a partisan political agenda and to manipulate the American electorate."
There is "a pattern of loose financial accounting and no firewalls" within the community-based group's byzantine network of hundreds of affiliated groups, Issa said.
Although the actions and possible outcomes explored in this article aren't likely to end up killing ACORN outright, it's clear that the group has already used up more than a few of its nine lives.