by Matthew Vadum
Some coincidences live in infamy.
It would have been hard Monday for Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan) not to understand how Bill Ayers felt the day the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked. Unforgiving history records that on Sept. 11, 2001, the retired domestic terrorist’s “I don’t regret setting bombs” comment ran in a New York Times profile.
While obviously of a much lesser magnitude, the House Judiciary Committee chairman’s May 4 statement exonerating ACORN couldn’t have come out at a worse time. “Based on my review of the information regarding the complaints against ACORN, I have concluded that a hearing on this matter appears unwarranted at this time,” Conyers said in a statement aired that night on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Tonight.”
Just hours earlier his fellow Democrats in Nevada, Secretary of State Ross Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto dropped a bombshell. ACORN and two former senior ACORN employees in the state, they announced, had been charged with a total of 39 felony counts related to voter registrations.
“By structuring employment and compensation around a quota system, ACORN facilitated voter registration fraud in this state,” said Masto. “Nevada will not tolerate violations of the law by individuals nor will it allow corporations to hide behind or place blame on their employees when its training manuals clearly detail, condone and, indeed, require, illegal acts in performing the job for the corporation.”
Nevada alleges that last year ACORN paid canvassers between $8.00 and $9.00 per hour to register people to vote, but canvassers who fell short of the quota of 20 voter registration forms per shift were fired. This illegal policy was “clearly outlined in the training materials the organization used to train new employees,” according (pdf) to the state.
Nevada claims ACORN also offered canvassers additional compensation in the form of a bonus program called “Blackjack” or “21+” that paid canvassers a $5.00 bonus. Each canvasser who brought in 21 or more completed voter registration forms per shift would receive the bonus. Such schemes are illegal in the state because they give canvassers an incentive to file fraudulent forms.
Nevada alleges the bonus program “was created by employee Christopher Edwards, the Field Director for the Las Vegas office,” and that ACORN timesheets show the group’s management knew about it and “failed to take immediate action to terminate it.” The state claims that ACORN’s Deputy Regional Director Amy Busefink knew about the bonus program and “aided and abetted the scheme by approving” it.
An initial hearing in the criminal case has been scheduled for June 3 in Las Vegas.
But no hearing has been scheduled by Conyers.
When on Wednesday this reporter asked Conyers spokesman Jonathan Godfrey to explain the decision not to move forward with a probe, he declined to do so and instead emailed the same statement that was aired on CNN earlier in the week.
It’s unclear what exactly crystallized Conyers’s thinking, but his reversal is all the more puzzling given the enthusiasm the 23-term congressman showed for holding an ACORN hearing mere weeks ago.
On March 19, after hearing the testimony of GOP lawyer Heather Heidelbaugh about ACORN’s many misdeeds, Conyers said the allegations were “a pretty serious matter.”
Heidelbaugh testified the nonprofit group violated a host of tax, campaign finance, and other laws. She said the presidential campaign of Barack Obama sent ACORN its “maxed out donor list” and asked two of the avowedly nonpartisan group’s employees “to reach out to the maxed out donors and solicit donations from them for Get Out the Vote efforts to be run by ACORN.”
Heidelbaugh said the New York Times had the donor list story but editors there spiked it the month before the election, a claim she repeated on “The O’Reilly Factor” two weeks later. The newspaper told the Philadelphia-based Bulletin that “political considerations played no role in our decisions about how to cover this story or any other story about President Obama.”
Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the committee’s panel on the Constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties, said the Obama campaign’s alleged involvement with ACORN might violate federal election law. “ACORN has a pattern of getting in trouble for violating federal election laws,” he said.
He also slammed the Old Gray Lady herself. “If true, the New York Times is showing once again that it is a not an impartial observer of the political scene,” Sensenbrenner said. “If they want to be a mouthpiece for the Democratic Party, they should put Barack Obama approves of this in their newspaper.”
Heidelbaugh also testified that ACORN has rendered protest-for-hire services for other left-wing groups and extracted donations from the targets of demonstrations by shaking down those targets as part of its “muscle for the money” program.
Back on March 19, Conyers seemed genuinely disturbed by the claims. He pushed the chairman of the subcommittee Sensenbrenner is ranking member of, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York), to hold his own hearing.
A blasé Nadler said he “would certainly consider a hearing on ACORN, if I ever hear any credible allegations.” Referencing Heidelbaugh’s testimony, Conyers replied, “Whoa. Wait a minute. This is a member of the bar here that got a successful partial injunction against ACORN.”
A fortnight later Conyers reiterated his support for an ACORN probe, telling the Washington Times he still wanted to do it and he “probably will.” Conyers, whom the article called an “unlikely champion” for ACORN opponents, rejected arguments from fellow Democrats that his committee should steer clear of the issue.
“That’s our jurisdiction, the Department of Justice,” he told the newspaper. “That’s what we handle – voter fraud. Unless that’s been taken out of my jurisdiction and I didn’t know it.”
Alas, it was too good to be true. The investigative zeal of the Judiciary Committee chairman soon waned.
It was always hard to believe that the ultra-liberal Conyers, who is very sympathetic to ACORN’s policy goals and who as recently as October called the radical group “a longstanding and well regarded organization that fights for the poor and working class,” really wanted to investigate his longtime ally in the leftist movement.
Conyers, who received a 100% rating from ACORN in its 2006 legislative scorecard, showed how truly in sync he was with ACORN when he spoke at the group’s national convention last June 22.
“I’m through with deregulation,” said Conyers. “It doesn’t work because the capitalist predators who are waiting unregulated are going to take advantage of it.”
Last fall Conyers seemed on hair-trigger alert, ready to pounce on anybody who tangled with ACORN. After media reports surfaced that one ACORN worker was assaulted by an irate homeowner, some ACORN workers were threatened, and two ACORN offices might have been vandalized, Conyers speculated –in the absence of any evidence that the incidents were connected— that a massive anti-ACORN conspiracy might be afoot.
“If true, these reports appear to describe possible federal crimes such as criminal civil rights crimes [sic] including conspiracy to deprive the victims (and others) of federally protected constitutional rights, mail and wire offenses, and other more basic offenses such as assault and battery,” Conyers wrote in an Oct. 20 letter urging the attorney general and the FBI director to act.
“Depending on the circumstances and the possible involvement of a group of individuals, the conduct also raises serious questions under the federal RICO law,” he wrote.
Yet the allegations of racketeering made against ACORN at the Judiciary Committee hearing in March don’t seem to interest Conyers.
There is so much about the Alinskyite group that a congressional probe could explore.
Former ACORN employees say ACORN makes no effort to remove bogus voter registrations. “There’s no quality control on purpose, no checks and balances,” Nate Toler, who worked on an ACORN voter effort in Missouri told the Wall Street Journal in 2006. “The internal motto is ‘We don’t care if it’s a lie, just so long as it stirs up the conversation,’” he said.
When accused of breaking the law, ACORN’s usual approach is to deny, deny, deny, and then accuse somebody, usually Republicans or law enforcement officials, of racism and voter suppression. In early October when the group’s Las Vegas office was raided on orders from the state’s Democratic attorney general and secretary of state, Matthew Henderson, ACORN’s southwest regional director, was glib.
“The raid was a stunt designed perhaps to make them look tough on voter fraud,” Henderson said. “We don’t think fraud is a rampant problem. This was a politically motivated stunt, that is all there is to it because those new voters can reshape the electorate of Nevada.”
On the May 6 edition of the Glenn Beck Program, after a heated interview about the new charges in Nevada, the host ejected ACORN spokesman Scott Levenson from the studio following an off-camera altercation. “I threw him out of the studio, get the hell out of my studio,” Beck told viewers he said after Levenson accused him during the commercial break of being “afraid of black people.”
Although ACORN is an enthusiastic supporter of government regulation of the economy, it can’t tolerate being burdened by those same regulations. In 1995, it sued California for an exemption from the law that requires it to pay its own employees a minimum wage. With a mendicant fervor, ACORN argued that keeping its employees in poverty helps to boost their zeal to help the poor. It lost.
The group also supports the continued imposition of equal employment opportunity laws on the rest of America, but argued it shouldn’t have to comply with those same laws. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had to sue ACORN to force it comply with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the crown jewel of the civil rights movement’s legislative accomplishments.
The taxpayer-subsidized ACORN network, which owes millions of dollars in back taxes, also played a role in the subprime mortgage mess that has undermined Americans’ support for free market problem-solving and set off a worldwide chain of financial troubles.
Then there’s ACORN’s eight-year-long coverup of the million-dollar embezzlement by founder Wade Rathke’s brother. When ACORN board members Marcel Reid and Karen Inman demanded to see the financial documents last year, they were expelled from the group. Reid and Inman have since become whistleblowers and formed a group called ACORN 8 that aims to reform ACORN.
And let’s not even get started on ACORN’s history of union-busting.
Surely Conyers has all, or at least some, of this information.
What happened in recent weeks that changed his mind?