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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Why aren't Republicans going after voter registration fraud now? (Part 2)

20

June

Nothing to see here, move along.

That’s basically the conclusion of a criminal investigation into a GOP vendor that was released by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Thursday.

Investigators found at least 11 voter registration forms filled out in Lee and Charlotte counties that were fraudulent: addresses were wrong, people were given the wrong Republican Party affiliation, some basic information was incorrect.

But when FDLE investigators tracked down employees for the GOP vendor that filled them out, they employees denied any wrong-doing.

“Based upon a lack of evidence, witnesses, and the access to voter registration cards by numerous (vendor) employees, no further investigative activities will be initiated in this case,” the report concludes.

Case closed. No arrests.

That’s good news for the Republican Party of Florida and the vendor they hired last year, Strategic Allied Consulting, to register voters. The firm ran afoul of the law when an elections worker in Palm Beach County flagged questionable forms after spotting irregularities.

The case exploded in a media firestorm as it was learned questionable registration forms the vendor had filled out were found in a dozen counties. The RPOF soon fired Strategic Allied Consulting, and the vendor quickly fired at least two employees that were involved in the fraudulent forms.

It was all kind of embarrassing for the Republicans, who had made ACORN a really big deal. You remember ACORN -- the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now? It was the nation’s largest community organization advocating for low and moderate income families. After a series of controversies, it disbanded in 2010.

That didn’t matter to Republicans who wanted to use the left-leaning group as an example during the next election cycle. They pounced on the group’s voter registration efforts. During the 2008 election, ACORN claimed it signed up to 1.3 million voters, but it was later revealed that 30 percent of that total was rejected for various reasons. In Florida that year, ACORN’s Florida organizer alerted Miami-Dade County law enforcement that 1,400 voter registration forms the group had collected — but hadn’t turned into elections officials yet — appeared to be problematic.

An investigation led to 11 ACORN workers charged for falsifying information on hundreds of forms, with penalties ranging from probation to 125 days in jail.

Although ACORN blew the whistle on itself and the group wasn’t prosecuted for further fraud in the state, Republicans alleged that ACORN helped steal an election. In 2011, Republicans passed HB 1355, which imposed tighter deadlines for third-party groups to submit voter registration forms and imposed $50-a-day fines if they didn’t turn in the forms within 48 hours.

“Did they forget ACORN already?” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Gainesville, responding to critics who alleged the new law intended to suppress the vote.

But with no ACORN around in 2012, it was Strategic Allied Consulting that became the bête noire for honest electioneers. And that meant serious ironical blowback for Republicans.

Just as the whole case threatened to blow up, however, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced they would investigate. And in Florida, that meant that state law allowed state officials to stop talking about it. Cases are confidential until they are closed.

Gretl Plessinger, an FDLE spokeswoman, said there are three ongoing cases involving Strategic Allied Consulting in Miami, Pensacola, and Tallahassee. No details could be revealed about those. Another case, in Jacksonville, closed earlier this year. Two staffers admitted to forging forms, but investigators stopped the investigation and never interviewed supervisors.

The case that closed Thursday involved 16 “suspicious” voter registration forms in the Fort Meyers area. FDLE agents tracked down each form and found 11 were fraudulent.

Four people listed on registration forms used the same handwriting to fill out the applications. The addresses didn’t match up. Four people claimed someone listed their party affiliation as Republican, even though they weren’t. One form’s address for a new registrant led investigators to a construction site. One woman said she didn’t fill out any information, but was listed anyway as signing up to vote. One woman refused to speak with investigators, saying she already told elections officials that someone had incorrectly registered her to vote.

Investigators interviewed three former staffers with Strategic Allied Consulting. But all three said they had no more information to provide. None of them admitted to forging the forms.

Although agents notified the state’s Division of Elections that the casee was closed on April 15, the case wasn’t released to the media until Thursday. That timing was similar to the Jacksonville case, which was closed in January, but not released to reporters until March 5 -- the first day of the legislative session.

And unlike the 2011 session, when ACORN was invoked repeatedly by Republican lawmakers, Strategic Allied Consulting was nary mentioned during this year's session.

No ACORN here. 

[Last modified: Thursday, June 20, 2013 8:30pm]

    

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