Columns » Ernest Dumas

A mighty Acorn

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When Wade Rathke started organizing poor folks in east Little Rock and Fair Park neighborhoods to pester City Hall for a better shake 37 years ago, he could only have dreamed that his spawn, the poor people's champion Acorn, would one day drive the White House to undermine the Constitution.

All right, the White House has only halfway admitted that it got U. S. attorneys fired because they wouldn't help the Republican cause in the 2006 election by going after Acorn and other groups.

Proof will come if they ever get access to e-mails or the testimony of Harriet Miers, Karl Rove or denizens of Rove's White House political shop, which President Bush is blocking with the claim of executive privilege.

But evidence is aplenty and keeps coming that the White House and by extension the Justice Department as well as the national Republican Party obsessed about Acorn, especially after it boasted of having registered a million new voters in 37 states in advance of the 2004 election. The new potential voters were mostly minorities and overwhelmingly poor, and although Acorn claims to be nonpartisan those people were assumed to be potential Democratic voters. In fact, not many bother to vote after they register.

It has been an article of faith with the Republican Party since 2000 that Democrats win elections through massive vote fraud flowing from the recruiting efforts of groups like Acorn, although the best evidence points in the opposite direction.

Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2002 ordered U. S. attorneys to put a high priority on investigating and prosecuting election fraud. That is what all the freshly minted Republican prosecutors did although with paltry results that infuriated the White House and the party. From 2002 through 2005, out of some 320,000 federal criminal cases of all kinds only 95 people were charged with any kind of voter fraud. Many of the cases were dismissed or produced no guilty verdict, and most did not involve actual voting.

In Arkansas, U. S. Attorney H. E. “Bud” Cummins II had his people investigate new voter registrations. Rather than being the villain characterized by his party, Cummins would explain recently, Acorn was more the victim. It hired people to register new voters and paid them for new registrants or by the hour and a few of them defrauded Acorn by making up names or taking them randomly out of phone books, filling out registration forms and collecting a few extra bucks. Cummins said it was unlikely to produce any real votes.

Cummins was the first of the U.S. attorneys fired by the Justice Department but no one ever explained why except it was to make way for Tim Griffin, although an e-mail from the White House political office from a friend and co-worker of Griffin said Cummins was “lazy.” He never prosecuted any of the Acorn hirelings. Cummins got his marching orders a few weeks after taking over an investigation of corruption in the office of Missouri's Republican governor in 2006 and spurning, at least temporarily, entreaties by the governor's attorney to publicly vindicate the man.

Other U.S. attorneys found the same pattern although a few of them actually obtained indictments.

But Acorn turned out to be more a foil than a nemesis for the Republicans. Pressed by the White House, the Justice Department goaded its prosecutors to announce investigations and indictments before the election, although the political timing of prosecutions violated longstanding Justice Department policy.

Why before the election? The prosecutions would intimidate minority voters, especially any who might have gone on the rolls recently in voter drives. It was among several voter-suppression strategies. The most famous and effective was “caging” minority voters, a process described by Tim Griffin when he was running a GOP operation in heavily minority precincts in Florida. The work came to light when Griffin mistakenly copied e-mails about his caging activities to a George W. Bush website run by a foe of the president.

After the Justice Department chased off its U.S. attorney for western Missouri last year it sent down one of Alberto Gonzales' deputies to run the office. A few days before the election he announced the indictment of five people hired by Acorn to register voters. The news was trumpeted on Fox News, CNN, the Washington Times and elsewhere. One would plead guilty, and after the election a judge would exonerate the rest. He found no evidence of violations of federal voting law.

The White House was particularly vexed at David Iglesias, a Republican politico in New Mexico whose firing after the '06 election has the state's senior senator facing an ethics inquiry. Iglesias yielded to the importuning to investigate Acorn and other voter drives but he didn't prosecute. New Mexico was a key swing state where general elections were settled by mere hundreds of votes. Bush lost there by a handful of votes. Republicans pressed Iglesias to file charges before the election in the case of a 13-year-old boy who had illegally registered to vote without his parents' knowledge. It would give the party ammunition in the election.

Like Cummins, Iglesias thought he had far more important work to do. They didn't understand the new dynamics of the law. Getting Republicans elected is a lawman's Job One.

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