In an startling partisan shift, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. on Thursday proposed holding hearings on claims the liberal activist group ACORN engaged in a pattern of crimes ranging from voter fraud to a mob-style “protection” racket.
Mr. Conyers, Michigan Democrat and fierce partisan, suggested a congressional probe after scathing testimony about the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) during a hearing on various voting issues related to the 2008 presidential election.
Mr. Conyers called the accusations “a pretty serious matter.”
“I think that it would be something that would be worth our time,” he said during Thursday's hearing. “We've never had one person representing ACORN before the committee. ... I think in all fairness we ought to really examine it.”
The testimony by Pittsburgh lawyer Heather Heidelbaugh accused the nonprofit group of 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.
She also testified that the Democrat-allied group 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.
Ms. Heidelbaugh, a member of the executive committee of the Republican National Lawyers Association, spearheaded an unsuccessful lawsuit last year seeking a court injunction in Pennsylvania against ACORN's voter-registration drive for the 2008 presidential campaign. She appeared as a witness at the request of Republican committee members.
Mr. Conyers, who is known for his drive to continue investigating the Bush administration, previously defended ACORN. In October, he condemned an FBI voter fraud investigation targeting the group. He questioned whether it was politically motivated to hamper a voter-registration drive targeting groups likely to support Mr. Obama's candidacy.
But Mr. Conyers' shift was met by resistance from fellow Democrats on the committee, and it was unclear whether a hearing would be scheduled.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights and civil liberties that hosted Thursday's hearing, suggested there was not enough “credible evidence” to warrant a hearing focused exclusively on ACORN.
Rep. Melvin Watt said he would concede that ACORN and some of its members engaged in voter fraud. But he said voter fraud was already covered by existing law and Congress has not further role in the matter.
“I'm not coming to a hearing to have a trial on ACORN. That's not my job,” the North Carolina Democrat said.
Republican committee member Rep. Steve King of Iowa said getting the Democrat-led Congress to take action against ACORN “is going to be difficult but I am encouraged by John Conyers' request.”
The accusations against the group, which were based entirely on sworn court testimony late last year by ACORN whistleblower Anita MonCrief.
No ACORN officials testified at Thursday's hearing, but they have said none of the charges are true and dismiss Ms. MonCrief as a disgruntled, low-level employee who was fired for stealing money from the organization.
Kevin Whelan, ACORN deputy political director, did not return a call for comment Thursday.
Ms. MonCrief worked for years as a clerk at the D.C. office of ACORN-affiliated Project Vote before being fired for charging about $2,000 in personal expenses on an ACORN credit card.
She said the hearing Thursday - she attended but did not testify - was an extremely partisan exercise except for Mr. Conyers' support for further hearings.
“I thought that was really wonderful because he took a stand that I really didn't think was going to come from that side,” Ms. MonCrief, a registered Democrat, said after the hearing.