House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. has backed off his plan to investigate purported wrongdoing by the liberal activist group ACORN, saying ?powers that be? put the kibosh on the idea.
Mr. Conyers, Michigan Democrat, earlier bucked his party leaders by calling for hearings on accusations the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now (ACORN) has committed crimes ranging from voter fraud to a mob-style "protection" racket.
"The powers that be decided against it," Mr. Conyers told The Washington Times as he left the House chambers Wednesday.
The chairman declined to elaborate, shrugging off questions about who told him how to run his committee and give the Democrat-allied group a pass.
Conyers spokesman Jonathan Godfrey said late Thursday, several hours after the first request for comment, that the chairman had been referring to himself as "the powers that be."
Pittsburgh lawyer Heather Heidelbaugh, whose testimony about ACORN at a March 19 hearing on voting issues prompted Mr. Conyers to call for a probe, said she was perplexed by Mr. Conyers' explanation for his change of heart.
"If the chair of the Judiciary Committee cannot hold a hearing if he wants to, [then] who are the powers that he is beholden to?" she said. "Is it the leadership, is it the White House, is it contributors? Who is 'the power'?"
The comment spurred similar questions by House Republicans, who asked whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was involved in blocking the probe.
"Chairman Conyers has a responsibility to explain who is blocking this investigation, and why. Is it Speaker Pelosi? Others in the Democratic leadership? Who in Congress is covering up ACORN's corruption?" said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin, ranking Republican on the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties, said the chairman should be calling the shots.
}Mr. Conyers, who heard the allegations against ACORN, was sufficiently impressed to realize a future hearing was needed to thoroughly investigate the matter," he said. "It's unfortunate that people who didn't hear the testimony are making the decisions. The Democratic leadership should step up to disclose who instructed Mr. Conyers to drop his plan."
The office of Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat, did not respond to questions about Mr. Conyers' comments.
Capitol Hill had bristled at the prospect of hearings because it threatened to rekindle criticism of the financial ties and close cooperation between President Obama's campaign and ACORN and its sister organizations Citizens Services Inc. and Project Vote.
The groups came under fire during the campaign after probes into suspected voter fraud in a series of presidential battleground states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Mexico and Nevada.
ACORN and its affiliates are currently the target of at least 14 lawsuits related to voter fraud in the 2008 election and a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act complaint filed by former ACORN members.
The group's leaders have consistently denied any wrongdoing and previously said they welcomed a congressional probe.
The group did not respond to questions about Mr. Conyers being convinced to drop those plans.
Ms. Heidelbaugh, who spearheaded an unsuccessful lawsuit last year to stop ACORN's Pennsylvania voter-registration drive, testified in March that the nonprofit group was violating tax, campaign-finance and other laws by, among other things, sharing with the Barack Obama campaign a list of the Democrat's maxed-out campaign donors so ACORN could use it to solicit them for a get-out-the-vote drive.
ACORN also provided liberal causes with protest-for-hire services and coerced donations from targets of demonstrations through a shakedown it called the "muscle for the money" program, said Ms. Heidelbaugh, a member of the executive board of the Republican National Lawyers Association.
Mr. Conyers, a fierce partisan known for his drive to continue investigating President George W. Bush's administration, had been an unlikely champion for opponents of ACORN.
Before calling for the probe, he frequently defended ACORN. In October, he condemned an FBI voter-fraud investigation targeting the group, questioning whether it was politically motivated to hamper a voter-registration likely to turn out supporters for Mr. Obama's candidacy.
But in March, Mr. Conyers dismissed the argument made by fellow Democrats that accusations of voter fraud and other crimes should be explored by prosecutors and decided in court, not by lawmakers in Congress.
"That's our jurisdiction, the Department of Justice," Mr. Conyers said in March. "That's what we handle voter fraud. Unless that's been taken out of my jurisdiction and I didn't know it."