- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 23, 2009

The liberal activist organization ACORN filed a lawsuit Wednesday that aims to strike down a Pennsylvania law that authorities are currently using to prosecute several of the group’s former employees on charges related to voter-registration fraud.

The suit, filed in federal court in Pennsylvania, seeks to have a state law known as solicitation of registration declared unconstitutional. The law makes it illegal to pay an employee for soliciting voter registrations based on the number of registrations the employee obtains.

Five former employees of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) were charged in May with various voter-registration-fraud crimes, including solicitation of donations. Those charges, which authorities say included ACORN employees submitting registration forms for “Mickey Mouse,” are still pending.

The episode in Pennsylvania was one of several in battleground states that saw ACORN come under fire during last year’s presidential election. At least 14 lawsuits have been filed against ACORN after the 2008 election, including a suit brought by former ACORN employees under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, a law more commonly associated with mobsters than community organizations.

Republicans on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform plan to release Thursday the results of an investigation that concluded ACORN “has repeatedly and deliberately engaged in systemic fraud.”

“Both structurally and operationally, ACORN hides behind a paper wall of nonprofit corporate protections to conceal a criminal conspiracy on the part of its directors, to launder federal money in order to pursue a partisan political agenda and to manipulate the American electorate,” according to the executive summary of the report obtained Wednesday by The Washington Times.

The report is unlikely to result in any action from a Democrat-controlled Congress that has shown little interest in investigating ACORN.

Democrats have typically defended ACORN, with one notable exception. House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat and former ACORN supporter, called for an investigation into the group, but backed off the idea last month, saying the “the powers that be decided against it.”

In the lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania, ACORN argues the solicitation of voter registration law essentially prevents the group from running any quality control of its operations.

“No employer can afford to have unproductive employees,” Witold Walczak, an ACLU lawyer who is representing ACORN, wrote in the suit. “If ACORN cannot terminate employees who fail to collect even one application, it will be impossible for the organization to run a paid voter-registration drive.”

Mr. Walczak argues that the limits the law puts on the group’s voter-registration activities violates ACORN’s First Amendment rights to free speech, to free association and to petition the government.

Wednesday’s lawsuit names as defendants Stephen Zappala Jr., a county district attorney who brought the charges against the former ACORN employees, and state Attorney General Tom Corbett.

Mr. Corbett is not involved with the criminal prosecution, but it is part of his job to defend the state’s laws against legal challenges. A spokesman for Mr. Corbett said the solicitation of registration law has previously been used to successfully prosecute defendants for other registration fraud.

“We believe their claims are without merit, and we will vigorously defend the constitutionality of our state statute,” said the spokesman, Kevin Harley.

S.A. Miller contributed to this report.

• Ben Conery can be reached at bconery@washingtontimes.com.

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