TALLAHASSEE -- As criminal investigators sift through hundreds of questionable voter-registration forms filed by the Republican Party of Florida, it’s hard not to see parallels with a case four years ago that made election fraud the campaign issue it is today.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — ACORN — became conservative shorthand for systemic voter fraud and threatened to undermine confidence in elections throughout the nation. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said as much during his final debate with Barack Obama in 2008, declaring that ACORN was “destroying the fabric of democracy.”
The offense — filling out hundreds of fraudulent voter-registration forms — is strikingly similar to what a vendor hired by Republicans is accused of doing in what has now prompted a criminal investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
But in the only statewide ACORN investigation that led to arrests, the group blew the whistle on itself.
In June 2008, ACORN’s Florida organizer alerted Miami-Dade County law enforcement that 1,400 registration forms that had not been turned in appeared to be problematic. Of that total, 888 were found to be fraudulent, in some cases registering the likes of actor Paul Newman and singer James Taylor.
“To their credit, they brought the forms to us,” said Joseph Centorino, who successfully prosecuted that case against 11 ACORN workers in Miami-Dade. “They turned over a whole box of forms that they thought had been done fraudulently. As far as I know, these forms were never filed at the elections offices.”
That level of cooperation has not been exhibited by Strategic Allied Consulting, the vendor hired by the Republican Party of Florida in July. No company official alerted state elections officials about problematic forms until they had already been detected by elections workers. On Sept. 17, an elections worker in Palm Beach County flagged questionable forms after spotting obvious irregularities.
It was not until that discovery was reported by the Palm Beach Post on Sept. 25 that state Republicans say they knew about problems with forms the firm was filing on behalf of the party. After firing the company last week, the state GOP filed an election-fraud complaint against it.
But in late August, an elections worker in Lee County found problematic forms filed by Strategic Allied Consulting. Although company officials on Sept. 10 fired the employee who filled out the 11 forms, they left officials hanging about what to do after their only meeting.
“I never heard back,” said Cheryl Johnson, Lee County’s voter registration director.
A spokesman for Strategic Allied Consulting, David Leibowitz, said an attorney for the firm called Johnson this week to apologize for the lack of follow-up. Fred Petti also apologized to The Herald/Times for saying last week that he knew of only one employee — the Palm Beach County worker — who was fired.
The FDLE announced Wednesday that it had launched a criminal investigation into the forms filed on behalf of the state GOP. Submitting false voter registration information is a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.
Questionable registration forms have been found in a dozen counties from South Florida to the Panhandle. Many were incomplete, at least one was registered to a dead person and some in Palm Beach County included addresses for voters that were business locations — a pattern that echoes the ACORN problems of 2008.