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 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 in what is now 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 hadn't 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 County. "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 hasn't been exhibited by Strategic Allied Consulting, the vendor hired by the Republican Party of Florida in July. No company official alerted state elections workers about problematic forms until they were already detected by elections workers. On Sept. 17, an elections worker in Palm Beach County flagged questionable forms after spotting obvious irregularities.
It wasn't 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 the vendor.
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 Times/Herald 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 has 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 spanning from South Florida to the Panhandle. Many of the forms 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, such as a gas station — a pattern that echoes ACORN problems from 2008.
Strategic Allied Consulting officials say that with 2,000 contractors registering voters in Florida, there are bound to be some bad apples.
That defense was also used by ACORN, which disbanded in 2010 six months after video footage emerged showing some of its workers giving tax tips to conservative activists posing as a pimp and prostitute. Founded in 1970, ACORN was an advocate for left-leaning causes such as fighting predatory lending and utilities but was not affiliated with the Democratic Party.
Its successes made it a target for conservatives. During the 2008 election, ACORN claimed it signed up 1.3 million voters, but it was later revealed that 30 percent were rejected for a variety of reasons. Its voter registration efforts led to several legal battles that chipped away at the organization's reputation.
In Washington state, prosecutors got ACORN to pay a $25,000 fine for costs of an investigation that led to felony charges against seven people for submitting phony applications for celebrities like actress Katie Holmes and New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera. The prosecutor concluded it was no grand conspiracy, just a case of workers cheating ACORN to get paid for work they didn't do. ACORN workers in Nevada filed forms for bogus applicants, such as the Dallas Cowboys football team, which led to a $5,000 fine.
Reports of ACORN problems were widespread in Florida. Orange County officials said they got a form that registered "Mickey Mouse" to vote. ACORN officials told the Times in 2008 that the form didn't come from them. Linda Tanko, who oversaw the voter registration forms in Orange County, remembers that ACORN's applications were in disarray.
"We found lots and lots of the forms having street issues, their addresses weren't matching the valid range of house numbers on a street," Tanko said. "One person had a dozen or so applications. There were some that were grossly incomplete."
Tanko couldn't recall, however, if anyone was found guilty of fraudulent registration. In Broward County, 8 percent of ACORN's 16,000 voter registration forms couldn't be verified, but elections officials there didn't suspect fraud.
The FDLE hasn't investigated a fraud case involving ACORN that led to any arrests. The agency did assist in the Miami-Dade case prosecuted by Centorino. His investigation led to 11 ACORN workers charged for falsifying information on hundreds of forms, with penalties ranging from probation to 125 days in jail.
"It strikes me as a very similar scenario as to what's happening now," Centorino said. "These people are getting paid minimal salaries and don't necessarily come with a background where you can trust they will do what they're supposed to do. Their motivation was to get paid for work they didn't want to do. But they were low level. Was this a bigger conspiracy? We didn't find that."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @mikevansickler.