San Diego County board unanimously supports ACORN investigation - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

San Diego County board unanimously supports ACORN investigation

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The Board of Supervisors voted today to support a joint investigation by the District Attorney and state Attorney General's offices into alleged irregularities in voter registration forms generated locally by ACORN.

The motion passed unanimously by the supervisors was different from the original version, which requested that an investigation be launched. In the days since the item was placed on the agenda, the investigation has already started, Supervisor Bill Horn said.

Calls for an audit began after conservative activists posted controversial undercover videos of ACORN employees on the Internet. ACORN recently lost federal funding and had ties cut by the U.S. Census Bureau.

ACORN's David Lagstein called the Board of Supervisors' action a "partisan fishing expedition," arguing that the group was attacked because it works with the poor.

He accused Horn and Supervisor Pam Slater-Price of jumping on the bandwagon amid the national controversy.

"We are proud to represent the most disenfranchised voters in the country," Lagstein said at an afternoon news conference at ACORN's local office in National City.

ACORN touts itself as advocating for the poor, but gained most of its notoriety by its voter registration drives.

Horn said 26,000 of the 39,000 new voters registered for the 2008 general election in California came from San Diego County.

Of those, 4,800 were disqualified immediately by county officials and 76 referred to the Secretary of State's Office for investigation of  "suspected fraudulent activity," said county Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler.

The registrar said her office worked with ACORN employees as they signed up new voters from January to September 2008 and were unsuccessful in attempts to get the organization to improve its performance.

"There seems to be a propensity of the ACORN employees -- so the allegations go -- of skirting the law," Horn said.

Lagstein said ACORN has launched a national internal investigation. He said the group has hundreds of part-time workers collecting voter registration cards.

"There is always going to be employees who are going to cheat the system to make a buck," he said, adding that those people are usually caught and fired.

The item was placed on the agenda after a pair of videos surfaced showing an ACORN employee in National City offering advice on smuggling a dozen young girls across the border from Mexico to a duo posing as a pimp and prostitute.

ACORN initially supported the employee, but then fired him.

Similar videos were made in other ACORN offices around the country.  

Most of the supervisors' ire was not directed toward ACORN, but to the Secretary of State's Office, which they accused of foot-dragging in looking into the 76 allegedly fraudulent registration cards.

Seiler said the state agency that runs elections has had the cards for about a year.

"This is intolerable," board President Dianne Jacob said, while Supervisor Ron Roberts said the state "was asleep" on the issue.

The Secretary of State's Office had numerous allegations of voter registration fraud to investigate with an expected workload of two years, according to Seiler.

"It would be good to know what the outcome of those questionable registrations really is," Seiler said.

Assemblyman Martin Garrick, R-Solana Beach, said he planned to call Secretary of State Debra Bowen and follow up with a letter, in an effort to get the office to move on the investigation.

No one spoke to the supervisors in favor of ACORN, but Horn said he talked with the head of the local office, who pledged cooperation.

In a statement e-mailed to the media on Monday, Lagstein said his organization "did important work to help thousands of Latino, African American, low-income and young voters apply to become registered voters last year."

"We ran a tight quality control program and communicated with election officials throughout," he said. "We turned in every application we collected and flagged anything that appeared to be an issue. No one has worked harder to get our citizens involved in voting."

There will always be some cases of missing information, bad handwriting or duplicate cards from people unsure if they were registered, he said.

"If there is to be an audit of ACORN's work, the same questions should be asked about voter registration cards sent in by mail, filled out at government offices, or collected by other groups," Lagstein said.

"We are happy to work with election officials. However, no citizen should receive different treatment based on where they completed a legal voter registration application," he said.

The District Attorney's Office, which Horn said will lead the investigation with support from the state Attorney General, had no immediate comment.

Horn said if any criminal activity is found among ACORN workers, "they should be prosecuted. It is a crime. I want to prevent this from happening again."

ACORN officials have said they are revamping their employee training and plan to launch an independent review of the group's practices.

ACORN stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. Last year, it came under fire after its employees submitted false registration forms during the presidential race. ACORN officials said a handful of employees did so in a bid to boost their pay.

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