updated 5/4/2009 7:27:15 PM ET 2009-05-04T23:27:15

Nevada authorities filed criminal charges Monday against the political advocacy group ACORN and two former employees, alleging they illegally paid canvassers to sign up new voters during last year's presidential campaign.

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ACORN denied the charges and said it would defend itself in court.

Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto said the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now had a handbook and policies requiring employees in Las Vegas to sign up 20 new voters per day to keep their $8- to $9-per-hour jobs.

Canvassers who turned in 21 new voter registrations earned a "blackjack" bonus of $5 per shift, Masto added. Those who didn't meet the minimum were fired.

"By structuring employment and compensation around a quota system, ACORN facilitated voter registration fraud," Masto said. She accused ACORN executives of hiding behind and blaming employees, and vowed to hold the national nonprofit corporation accountable for training manuals that she said "clearly detail, condone and ... require illegal acts."

Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller emphasized the case involved "registration fraud, not voter fraud," and insisted that no voters in Nevada were paid for votes and no unqualified voters were allowed to cast ballots.

Law-enforcement agencies in about a dozen states investigated fake voter registration cards submitted by ACORN during the 2008 presidential election campaign, but Nevada is the first to bring charges against the organization, ACORN officials said.

'Mickey Mouse' vote
ACORN has said the bogus cards listing such names as "Mickey Mouse" and "Donald Duck" represented less than 1 percent of the 1.3 million collected nationally and were completed by lazy workers trying to get out of canvassing neighborhoods. The organization has said it notified election officials whenever such bogus registrations were suspected.

ACORN spokesman Scott Levenson denied the Nevada allegations on behalf of ACORN, which works to get low-income people to vote and lists offices in 41 states and the District of Columbia. He blamed former rogue employees for the alleged wrongdoing.

"Our policy all along has been to pay workers at an hourly rate and to not pay employees based on any bonus or incentive program," he said. "When it was discovered that an employee was offering bonuses linked to superior performance, that employee was ordered to stop immediately."

Levenson said the two former ACORN organizers named in Monday's criminal complaint — Christopher Howell Edwards and Amy Adele Busefink — no longer work for ACORN and would not be represented by the organization.

Edwards, 33, of Gilroy, Calif., and Busefink, 26, of Seminole, Fla., could not immediately be reached for comment.

June 3 hearing
Masto identified Edwards as the ACORN Las Vegas office field director in 2008, and said timesheets indicate that ACORN corporate officers were aware of the "blackjack" bonus program and failed to stop it. The attorney general said Busefink was ACORN's deputy regional director.

The complaint filed in Las Vegas Justice Court accuses ACORN and Edwards each of 13 counts of compensation for registration of voters, and Busefink of 13 counts of principle to the crime of compensation for registration of voters. Each charge carries the possibility of probation or less than 1 year in jail, Masto said.

A court hearing was scheduled June 3 in Las Vegas, prosecutor Conrad Hafen said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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