Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama‘s campaign distanced itself Thursday from its $800,000 payment linked to the liberal ACORN organization, which is under investigation in several states where it is suspected of filing fraudulent voter registrations.
Federal Election Commission reports show ACORN-affiliated Citizens Services Inc. got $832,598 from the Obama campaign for get-out-the-vote work during the primaries. But those payments stopped in May and the Obama campaign says they should not be an election issue.
“This is going to be an historic election with unprecedented voter participation, and we are committed to protecting the integrity of the voting process,” Obama spokesman Nick Shapiro said. “We support local officials in their efforts to investigate any fraudulent behavior and the full prosecution of any illegal activities.”
Still, the contributions to Citizens Services draw the Obama campaign closer to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, and the growing voter-fraud scandal that this week spread to the battleground state of Ohio.
The elections board in Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, is reviewing about 65,000 voter cards submitted by ACORN after flagging 50 cards filled out for duplicate names, fictitious addresses, noncitizens and recycled names and addresses of currently registered voters, said board spokesman Mike West.
Similar probes reportedly are under way in other large Ohio counties.
Citizen Services is inextricably tied to ACORN. Along with nonprofit sister organization Project Vote, Citizens Services and ACORN share the same New Orleans address and the same executive staff while money flows freely between the three entities. In 1996, Project Vote’s tax returns show it paid ACORN more than $4.6 million for campaign services and Citizens Services more than $779,000 for legal and administrative services.
The ACORN political action committee endorsed Mr. Obama for president.
Its national voter-registration drive - which is targeting low-income, minority and young voters who tend to vote Democrat and likely favor Mr. Obama at the polls - is implicated in investigations of bogus voter applications in a dozen states, many of them battlegrounds.
Voter registration is key to Mr. Obama’s election strategy. First-time voters, especially students and minorities, helped fuel Mr. Obama’s primary wins, and his campaign is looking for the same results to capture swing states such as Ohio on Nov. 4.
In the swing state of Michigan, Oakland County election officials found more than 33,000 duplicate registrations, about two-thirds of new applications since August. In some cases, the same name was registered scores of times and in different jurisdictions, and ACORN canvassers submitted most of those applications.
“There would be as many as 10 applications from the same person … and they have 10 different signatures,” said Joe Rozell, elections director for Oakland County, part of the Detroit metropolitan area. “It seems like the majority of the questionable applications are coming from that organization,” referring to ACORN.
New Mexico officials said they forwarded fraudulent voter registrations involving ACORN to the U.S. Department of Justice, which would neither confirm nor deny a voting rights investigation of the group.
In Pennsylvania, a must-win state for Mr. Obama, Philadelphia voter registration administrator Bob Lee said the state attorney general has been alerted to more than 800 applications with false addresses - all of them submitted by ACORN.
“ACORN has a real serious quality control issue,” Mr. Lee said. “They also have supervision issues. They need to reform their hiring practices.”
The group’s voter-registration work is under investigation in Nevada, Missouri, Ohio, Wisconsin and Connecticut, where election officials in Bridgeport flagged about 2,000 fraudulent applications for fake addresses, fake people and even one misrepresenting a 7-year-old girl as being 27.
Brian Mellor, legal counsel for ACORN and Project Vote, said the Citizens Services was not involved in the voter-registration drive. He said Project Vote provided the funding and ACORN provided the local ground operation and ran day-to-day activities.
But James Terry, the chief political advocate for the nonpartisan Consumer Rights League who tracks ACORN issues, said Citizen Services and ACORN are one in the same.
“There is no way it is not coordinated,” he said. “It is a multimillion-dollar coordinated effort.”
Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s campaign said Mr. Obama’s association with ACORN is part of a patter of questionable associations with characters such as William Ayers, co-founder of the radical 1960s group Weather Underground, and convicted Chicago political fixer Tony Rezko.
“Whether voters consider Barack Obama’s relationship with William Ayers, Tony Rezko or ACORN, he has a litany of concerning associations that should be fully examined,” McCain campaign spokesman Ben Porritt said.
ACORN representatives said the group was being unfairly smeared for the wrongdoing of few errant employees.
They said ACORN staff worked closely with election officials to identify bad applications in its massive voter registration drive, which signed up 1.3 million new voters in 21 states for the presidential election.
They said canvassers, who are paid for each registration application, also defrauded ACORN by filing fraudulent applications.
“We worked with the election officials to root out employees that are ripping us off,” said Brian Mellor, legal counsel for ACORN and Project Vote. “We did everything we could do and some election officials dropped the ball and now are blaming us.”
Elections officials in Milwaukee credited ACORN with alerting them to suspicious voter registration, resulting in 26 ACORN workers facing criminal investigations.
“We have thousands and thousands of employees all over the country doing this,” Mr. Mellor said. “Do you really expect every one of our employees to be perfect? Probably not. Sorry.”