Opponents of the liberal activist group ACORN have found an unlikely champion in House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., who is clashing with his own party to pursue hearings on accusations that the group has committed crimes ranging from voter fraud to a mob-style “protection” racket.
“I still want to do it and I probably will,” Mr. Conyers, Michigan Democrat, told The Washington Times on Tuesday.
He 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. “That’s what we handle - voter fraud. Unless that’s been taken out of my jurisdiction and I didn’t know it.”
Mr. Conyers’ continued commitment to hearings bristles Capitol Hill Democrats because it threatens 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.
Rep. Jerrold Nadler, New York Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary subcommittee with the jurisdiction to conduct the hearing, said he does not think Congress is the place to hear criminal charges.
“It’s not our business to say ACORN is terrible or ACORN is wonderful. That’s not a congressional job,” Mr. Nadler said. “The evidence - I’ve listened to it - I think most of it is nonsense. If it’s true, it’s a law enforcement matter.”
However, he said he would bow to Mr. Conyers’ request for a hearing. Mr. Conyers said he hasn’t “pushed him yet.”
ACORN officials, who have consistently denied any wrongdoing, said they welcomed a congressional probe.
“We are confident that in any setting where the facts are laid bare that the right-wing campaign to smear ACORN’s good work will be exposed,” ACORN spokesman Brian Kettenring said.
Mr. Conyers’ comments were made on the same day the Republican National Lawyers Association (RNLA) sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee to press for a hearing to “get to the bottom of the allegations” against ACORN.
Cleta Mitchell, RNLA co-chairman and a Washington lawyer, said she was pleased when she learned that Mr. Conyers had pledged to follow through with a probe of ACORN, though she remained skeptical the chairman would take on the Democrat-allied group.
“I hope this is a real hearing and not a whitewash,” she said. “If there is a panel comprised primarily of those who want to bury the truth about ACORN, then it won’t be a real hearing.”
Mr. Conyers, a fierce partisan known for his drive to continue investigating the Bush administration, first shifted his position on ACORN at a March 19 hearing of Mr. Nadler’s subcommittee that explored issues from the 2008 presidential election.
He suggested a congressional probe after scathing testimony 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.
The proposal was met by resistance from Mr. Nadler, and Mr. Conyers had not publicly pressed the matter since then.
Mr. Conyers 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.
The testimony that provoked the change was delivered by Pittsburgh lawyer Heather Heidelbaugh, a member of the RNLA executive committee.
She also testified that the organization 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 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.
The accusations against the group were based entirely on sworn court testimony late last year by ACORN whistleblower Anita MonCrief. No ACORN officials testified at the March 19 hearing, but they have dismissed Ms. MonCrief as a disgruntled, low-level employee who was fired for stealing money from the organization.