News about ACORN keeps coming, with an anonymous leak that the FBI is investigating  the group for voter registration fraud; a lawsuit  by the Pennsylvania GOP asking that thousands of ACORN-registered voters be required to use provisional ballots; and now the organization’s [Seattle  and] Boston offices burgled  and vandalized.
Earlier this week the chief counsel of the Republican National Committee  called ACORN “a quasi-criminal organization” engaged in “a systematic effort to undermine the integrity of the election process nationwide,” and Republican presidential candidate John McCain said in Wednesday’s debate that the group “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”
One question arises: anyone remember the U.S. Attorney’s scandal?
Chicago writer Bob Koehler does  (noting his piece, Editor & Publisher  calls him “one of the few syndicated columnists to have regularly written about Republican voting shenanigans in recent years”). John Conyers does . So does David Iglesias , as you might expect.
One reason Iglesias was fired in 2006 as U.S. Attorney for New Mexico was his decision in the run-up to the 2004 election to ignore pressure from Republican operatives and forego a federal prosecution of an ACORN worker who had turned in false registrations. According to the recent report on the scandal by the DOJ’s inspector general (pdf ), Iglesias found “insufficient evidence of criminal intent” to justify a federal prosecution — i.e., “no proof that the defendant intended to influence the election,” and violations were a matter of state law.
That’s a key distinction, as Koehler notes. Conyers, too: ACORN “has registered more than one million voters. There are allegations that some paid workers essentially cheated ACORN by filling out registration forms with bogus names and incorrect information. This of course would have harmed ACORN since ACORN pays to register potential voters, not phantoms.” And the individuals’ crimes do not result in fraudulent votes being cast.
The cheating ACORN workers — most of them fired and turned in by ACORN — were motivated by petty greed and had no designs on gaming elections.
It’s a distinction apparently lost on Brad Scholzman, installed as U.S. Attorney for western Missouri in 2006 after Todd Graves was forced to resign. Scholzman indicted four ACORN workers five days before a very close election for U.S. Senator in Missouri in 2006.
Schlozman seems to have intentionally violated DOJ’s election crimes manual, which said investigation of election crimes must wait till after the given election, and conduct which would influence an election should be avoided. (Those provisions were removed from the manual in 2007.)
Scholzman is now under criminal investigation himself regarding charges that he lied to Congress.
The AP has fact-checked  McCain’s attacks on ACORN and reports:
“McCain is correct that at least a handful of ACORN canvassers are currently being investigated across the country by local officials on suspicion of submitting false registration cards, some with names like ‘Mickey Mouse’ or ‘Donald Duck.’
“But in alleging voter fraud, McCain goes too far. To commit fraud, a person would have to show up on Election Day with identification bearing the fake name.”
McClatchy reports : “Mounting evidence of Acorn’s sloppy management and poor supervision, however, so far doesn’t support the explosive charges that the group is trying to rig the presidential election.”
Other media outlets haven’t been as thorough.
Media Matters points out that reports on the accusations against ACORN in the New York Times  and on CNN  have ignored the fact that the group is required by law to turn in all registrations it collects (in part to ensure they’re not tossing the registrations of Republicans) — as well as the fact that actual voter fraud at the polls is extremely rare. These are, obviously, crucial elements of the story.
Talking Points Memo criticizes  an NBC News report that highlights past investigations of ACORN without mentioning that not a single one found evidence of fraudulent voting ever occurring.
It’s worth remembering (as Project Vote pointed out  two years ago) that three lawsuits filed in 2004 charging ACORN with voter registration fraud were dismissed or withdrawn for lack of evidence, and criminal investigations into ACORN’s voter registration activities that year in Colorado, Wisconsin, Florida and Ohio found no evidence of wrongdoing by the organization.
[Could the flurry of investigations and lawsuits be an effort to suppress voting by scaring legitimate new voters registered by ACORN? According to ACORN, the October 7 raid  on the group’s Las Vegas office by the Nevada Secretary of State was based on problem registrations which the group itself had repeatedly expressed concern over. And a racketeering lawsuit  filed against ACORN by a conservative group in Ohio is “taken virtually verbatim” from a 2004 suit that was dismissed.]
ACORN is not without its problems, including a major case of embezzlement by its founder’s brother (the group is now negotiating a separation  with founder Wade Rathke) and a foreclosure-presention deal with the nation’s largest subprime lender which some have questioned. It apparently lost the faith many of its Chicago members, who formed a separate organization this year. But its thousands of dedicated members have done much good work over the years. They are certainly not “destroying the fabric of democracy.”
The group has issued a detailed statement  countering the accusations — and noting the parallels to the U.S. Attorney scandals. In that case, they say, “because the press didn’t catch on until long after the election, it was part of a successful strategy to create an unfounded specter of voter fraud and to suppress voting.”
As bogeyman-du-jour, ACORN has also been blamed for the economic crisis. They have a detailed and convincing response  to this too. To start with, they fought many fights to curb predatory lending, in which they were opposed by the politicians now attacking them.
[Revised and expanded October 21]