7 charged with voter registration fraud

7 charged with voter registration fraud
SEATTLE (AP) - King County prosecutors filed felony charges Thursday against seven people in what a top official described as the worst case of voter-registration fraud in state history, while the organization they worked for agreed to keep a better eye on its employees and pay $25,000 to defray costs of the investigation.

The seven submitted about 1,800 registration cards last fall on behalf of the liberal Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which had hired them at $8 an hour to sign people up to vote, according to charging documents filed in Superior Court.

Secretary of State Sam Reed told a news conference it was clearly Washington's most serious instance of voter registration fraud.

"This was an act of vandalism upon the voter rolls of King County," said Dan Satterberg, the interim King County prosecutor.

Satterberg, Reed and other officials stressed that the defendants were motivated by financial gain rather than any desire to toy with the outcome of an election. They said that in one sense, ACORN was victimized because it paid for voter-registration work that was never performed.

But in interviews with King County Sheriff's Detective Chris Johnson, several of the defendants - while freely admitting they forged the forms - insisted that they had been told ACORN would shut down their office in Tacoma if they didn't improve their numbers, Johnson wrote in a probable cause statement.

One, Ryan Olson, said another worker in the office told him "do what you have to do" to turn in more cards.

ACORN's oversight of the workers was virtually nonexistent - to the extent that civil charges could have been warranted, Satterberg said.

In a settlement agreement announced Thursday, ACORN, which cooperated with the investigation, agreed to pay $25,000 and to make improvements in its management, training and oversight of suspect voter registrations throughout the state.

Acting Seattle U.S. Attorney Jeff Sullivan said he believes the agreement could become a model for other states in dealing with organizations like ACORN.

"Voter registration is a vital part of our work to increase civic participation," said John Jones, president of Washington ACORN. "We need to continue to do that work, and do all that we can to make sure that no one is trying to pull a fast one on us, and creating problems for the registrations, to get money they haven't earned. We will be working closely with county officials to do that."

ACORN, founded in 1970, has run voter registration drives across the country, with allegations of fraudulent registrations surfacing in several states, including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and Colorado in recent years.

The Washington state probe began after King County election workers in October spotted apparently forged voter-registration cards among about 1,800 that were turned in by ACORN. The cards arrived a day after they were due for the November election.

Election officials feared that tossing all of the registrations could inadvertently disenfranchise any potentially legitimate voters in the batch. So they allowed the names to appear on the rolls for subsequent elections, including an advisory vote on replacing Seattle's Alaskan Way Viaduct in March.

But they flagged those names and tried to verify them using other state databases. Only six turned out to be legitimate voters, Satterberg said. The King County canvassing board agreed to remove many of the rest - 1,762 - from the rolls Thursday, satisfied they were fraudulent.

Investigators determined that no votes were cast from the fraudulent voter registrations.

Charging papers said that in many cases, the ACORN workers flipped through phone books or baby-name books at the Seattle Public Library, picking names from one page and addresses from another.

Frequently they listed homeless shelters as the addresses, requiring shelter staff to spend hours going through their records to determine whether any of the people had actually lived there.

None of the defendants could immediately be reached for comment. Some had unlisted phone numbers or numbers that had been changed, while others did not return messages seeking comment.

Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for the King County prosecutor's office, said he did not know whether any had obtained attorneys.

The defendants are:

-Tina Marie Johnson, 24, of Tacoma, and Jayson Lee Woods, 19, of Elkridge, Md., who each face eight counts of providing false information on a voter registration, a felony punishable by up to one year in prison.

-Clifton Eugene Mitchell, 44, of Lakewood, the political organizer in the Tacoma ACORN office at the time of the alleged wrongdoing last August and September, and Olson, 28, of Needle, Calif., each face two counts of the same.

-Robert Greene, 56, of Tacoma, and Kendra Thill, 18, a transient who has not been located, face one count apiece.

-Brianna Debwa, 35, the quality control specialist in the office, faces one count of providing false information on a registration, and one count of making false statements to a public official.