As legislators streamed into the room around him, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, peered over his glasses at the roughly 60 people who’d come to this special hearing on ACORN.
“I’m glad to see this turnout so early in the day,” said Smith. (The hearing began at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, but there was nothing happening in the House.) “Today’s hearing is an opportunity for Republicans to move forward on this issue of importance to the American people.”
With most of Washington’s attention focused on the health care debate happening a flew blocks away in the Senate, or President Obama’s upcoming speech on troop escalation in Afghanistan, Smith and Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the sponsors of the hearing, were able to attractive an impressive amount of media. Six cameras were staged around the room, and national reporters filled out the seats behind the witness stand alongside members of ACORN-investigating conservative organizations like the Capital Research Center and Big Government. Officially titled a “Joint Forum on ACORN,” the hearing gave Republicans a chance to re-air allegations against the controversial activist group, which lost its long-standing federal funding in two lopsided September votes.
[GOP1]The eight Republican members of Congress who showed up for the hearing didn’t disappoint. With one exception, they labeled ACORN a “criminal enterprise” with close and current ties to the highest levels of the Obama administration and the labor movement.
“President Obama previously served as ACORN’s lawyer, participated in ACORN training sessions in Chicago, and presided on the board of two organizations that funded ACORN’s Chicago chapter,” said Smith. An old picture of Obama in an ACORN office was posted near the hearing stand to bolster his point. “The president’s ties with ACORN taint any conclusions the Department of Justice may reach with regard to whether or not to investigate ACORN employees. That’s why I’ve requested that the attorney general appoint a special prosecutor to investigate ACORN.”
To bolster their case, Republicans produced 81 pages of documents about ACORN’s voter registration activities in 2004 and 2006 — a supplement to Issa’s 99-page July 2009 report, “Is ACORN Intentionally Structured As a Criminal Enterprise?”
The 81 new pages, helpfully highlighted by staffers, put ACORN staffers on the record planning voter registration drives and campaigns for “progressive” candidates. They also touched on the organization’s social work — “within the next year Maryland ACORN will conduct 500 new lead tests for low and moderate-income renters and homeowners” — but members and witnesses argued that the organization’s political activity, clearly benefiting Democrats and President Obama, was at least reason to strip it of tax-exempt status.
“The current admin is becoming, in reality, the war room for ACORN’s political machine,” said Issa. “The poor will be better served when ACORN is no longer a go-to place for services.”
Issa kept his case simple: ACORN was intervening in, and tampering with, elections, using “money taken from poor people.” And he spent much of his time tossing friendly questions to Anita Moncrief, a former ACORN employee who has turned into a whistleblower against everything the group did while she worked there. Moncrief said that she joined the group to help the poor; when she decided that they were bilking people who asked for help, and that they were spending too much time assisting Democrats, she bolted.
“All of us, maybe with one exception, knew Albert Wynn,” said Issa, referring to unpredictable former congressman from Maryland’s African-American suburbs of Washington, D.C. “He was well-liked, a good man.”
In a short round of questions, Moncrief charged ACORN with conspiring to aid progressive candidate Donna Edwards — who’s currently serving in Congress, having defeated Wynn. “Albert Wynn was pictured next to George Bush,” said Moncrief, describing a PowerPoint presentation she saw. “They tried to paint him in a light that he was friendly with George Bush. They wanted to support Donna Edwards, who happens to sit on the board of one of the organizations that supplied money for one of their campaigns.”
Issa shook his head. “Here, today, the distortion even in the Democratic primary, of ‘you’re not the right kind of Democrat,’ speaks legions about why this should be investigated by both parties,” said Issa. “Obviously we’d like the attorney general in Maryland to do something about that.”
Issa’s congressional colleague was not the only Democrat to take fire from the hearings. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who brought a plastic bucket of acorns with him as an illustration, asked witness Hans Von Spakovsky, a Bush Department of Justice veteran who now works at the Heritage Foundation, about the role new White House Counsel Bob Bauer might play in “scrubbing the trail between the president and ACORN.”
“He’s a nice guy,” said Von Spakovsky, “but he’s a fierce opponent. He was general counsel of the DNC. He’s willing to just about anything to win.”
King and Von Spakovsky agreed that Bauer, in writing a 2008 memo pre-emptively attacking the McCain-Palin campaign for hyping the bogus voter registration forms filled out in swing states — forms that did not result in illegal votes, but took considerable time to find illegitimate — had proven himself willing to go to bat for ACORN. King, going further, suggested that the October resignation of former White House Communications Director Anita Dunn, Bauer’s wife, was tied to local ACORN investigations. “It wasn’t planned,” said King, apparently not believing Dunn’s long-announced plans to hold the job for a few months and then leave. Von Spakovsky ignored that argument, but backed up the rest of King’s case.
“Bauer’s argument was that if you talk about voter fraud, you’re intimidating voters,” said Von Spakovsky. “I guess I should be looking in the mail for a subpoena because I write about voter fraud quite a bit.”
In another, tone-setting exchange, King explained that he always kept a Constitution and a real acorn, from the Capitol grounds, in his pockets. The purpose, he said, was to remind him of the threat ACORN posed to the Constitution.
“My opinions are my own,” said Von Spakovsky, “and not representative of the Heritage Foundation — although I must say, I think Congressman King was holding a Heritage copy of the Constitution.” King nodded and smiled at the witness.
The rest of the hearing was about that friendly. The other Republicans who grilled their witnesses were largely concerned with horror stories from their states and confirmation of their worst fears about ACORN.
“Every two years we talk about voter fraud, and then the media goes away,” said Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tex.). “I think it’s time folks go to jail for voter fraud in this country, and then they lose the right to vote. That’s what happens to convicted felons in this country.”
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who was introduced by Issa as the former chairman the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee who’d signed the most subpoenas in history in order to investigate allegations of Democratic campaign finance abuse–”1,209! I got writer’s cramp!”–framed the ACORN issue as a battle for basic American freedoms. “Our forefathers fought for, I don’t know, what, eight years to defeat the British because they didn’t want taxation without representation,” said Burton. “And now we’re watching all these things being taken away, just frittered away, because we won’t enforce the law? It’s just criminal.”
The one dissonant note came from Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.), who defeated the indicted (and now convicted) former Congressman William Jefferson last year to grab the most-Democratic seat currently held by a Republican. Cao, who represents New Orleans, explained that he was in the room to “gather information,” not to indict ACORN. “I’ve seen them work in Louisiana,” said Cao. “This organization has done some good things in order to address the issues of minorities.” Less than halfway through the two-hour meeting, though, Cao left, without asking questions of the witnesses.
Little was revealed about ACORN that has not been reported; King even referred witnesses to a Fox News documentary on the group for part of his evidence. And before closing the hearing, Issa admitted that “ACORN’s amount of money that they’ve received from the government is relatively small.” The point, he said, was to rattle Democrats into holding a real investigation.
“I regret that this forum is necessary,” said Issa. “The American people deserve official hearing into ACORN. This hearing is necessarily partisan, but I would like to have this be nonpartisan.”
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) made a simpler case for more hearings.
“From one acorn,” said Gohmert, “many nuts can grow.”
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