Published Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009 | 3:25 p.m.
Updated Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2009 | 6:58 p.m.
The political advocacy organization ACORN and a former manager will stand trial in District Court on charges that they paid canvassers to collect voter registration applications in the 2008 election cycle.
Las Vegas Justice of the Peace William Jansen said on Wednesday there was enough evidence to allow a jury to decide whether the group and its former regional director, Amy Busefink, knew about an illegal bonus system run by its Las Vegas office field director, Christopher Edwards.
Busefink and ACORN are scheduled for arraignment in Clark County District Court at 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 14. Each face 13 felony counts related to the bonus program known as “21+” or “Blackjack.”
Busefink will not be held on bond.
If convicted, she would receive mandatory probation and ACORN could be fined up to $5,000 per charge.
Edwards previously accepted a deal to plead guilty to two gross misdemeanor counts of conspiracy to commit the crime of compensation for registration of voters.
He will receive probation for testifying for the prosecution.
Edwards testified that he created a bonus system that rewarded canvassers with an extra $5 for collecting 21 or more valid registration cards. He said Busefink approved it and that he bragged about its success on conference calls with his peers throughout the country.
Busefink and ACORN representatives deny they knew about the program and that after they found about it, told Edwards to stop.
Jansen said he based part of his decision on whether there was a quota system on Edwards’ testimony that ACORN was trying to register 1.7 million people nationwide.
Jansen also said there was evidence to show Busefink knew of the bonus program and approved it based on Edwards’ testimony.
“It appears to me that Amy approved it… as an incentive or bonus to get more people registered so they could be in good standing to meet the national quota,” Jansen said.
Tying money to or setting quotas for collecting voter registration cards is illegal under Nevada law.
Canvassers can be paid an hourly rate, regardless of how many cards they collect, said prosecutor Conrad Hafen, Chief Deputy Attorney General.
“The state of Nevada simply didn’t want individuals to be motivated by money,” he said. “That very well could cause people to make up names on voter registration cards and present false information.”
That’s what state investigators were looking for during a seven-month investigation into ACORN that began when the Attorney General’s Office raided the organization’s Las Vegas office in October 2008.
Although no charges of fraud were filed, investigators learned of the bonus program and allegations the office required canvassers to collect 20 cards per shift or risk being fired, Colin Haynes, an investigator for the Secretary of State’s Office, said in testimony on Tuesday.
The prosecution presented payroll spreadsheets taken from ACORN’s computers that list bonuses with “blackjack” or some variation of “21+” in a comment section.
Prosecutors also introduced an e-mail from Kimberly Olsen, ACORN’s director of voter registration, questioning Edwards and other field directors about the spreadsheets.
The e-mail, however, doesn’t tell Edwards to stop the bonus program, Hafen said.
“ACORN had an opportunity, if they wanted to, to tell him, Mr. Edwards, not to do the bonus program but they never did,” Hafen said.
Hafen said no charges would be filed against Olsen because there was no evidence that she aided in the program.
Kevin Stolworthy, Busefink’s lawyer, said she rejected an offer from the prosecution similar to what Edwards accepted.
“She’s not going to admit to something that’s not true,” he said. “We’re going to take this to trial.”
Lisa Rasmussen, ACORN’s attorney, said the state is using an unconstitutional law to prosecute the organization and plans to challenge it in court.
She said the law, as written, violates the First Amendment right to petition and gather registration cards.
It’s also the first time this particular law has been used to prosecute someone since its adoption in 1993, Rasmussen said.
“It’s vague and it’s ambiguous,” she said.
Rasmussen said the state’s own video interviews of ACORN canvassers show some of them admitted to committing fraud by making up names on applications. None of them have been charged, which shows the state is only targeting the organization, she said.
“This I really all about going after ACORN and making a name for themselves in the Secretary of State’s Office and the Attorney General’s Office, and it’s really unfortunate,” Rasmussen said. “A lot of people voted who would not have otherwise been registered to vote.”
Hafen said the investigation is over and called the allegations that the two state offices are politically motivated in prosecuting the group “absurd.”
He said it wasn’t possible to connect the fraudulent cards with the canvassers who falsified them because ACORN didn’t track that information.
“There’s no evidence at all before this court that indicate that any of this is of a political nature,” he said.
Toward the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, some supporters of Republican John McCain claimed that ACORN was trying to fraudulently register voters in support of the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama.
Clark County Registrar of Voters Larry Lomax first raised the issue of fraud after finding cards with football team names on them that were turned in by ACORN.
In Clark County, the organization turned in about 91,000 completed cards of which more than 23,000 were valid new voters. A portion of the others, as many as 29,000, were valid but not new voters, said Matthew Henderson, ACORN’s general counsel.
ACORN aided Lomax’s office is weeding out the fraudulent forms, Haynes said.
“Nevada has one of the lowest registration rates in the country and rather than do something about it, they are prosecuting the one organization that did do something about it,” he said.