MIAMI - Armed with a tip from the grass-roots group ACORN about its own workers, authorities on Wednesday began arresting 11 people suspected of falsifying hundreds of voter applications during a registration drive last year.
ACORN, which stands for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, has long been accused by Republican and conservative activists - fed by talk-radio hosts - of fraudulently registering voters. But Miami-Dade prosecutors gave credit to the group for coming forward and ACORN officials said they felt vindicated.
"It shows that we take the integrity of our voter registration work with the utmost seriousness," said ACORN spokesman Brian Kettenring. "We turn in people who try to game the system."
Although ACORN is nonpartisan, its registration efforts focus on low-income and minority populations who tend to vote for Democrats; critics contend those efforts frequently bend or break registration rules. At times during the 2008 presidential campaign, people attending rallies for Republican nominee John McCain broke into chants of "No More ACORN!"
Last year, ACORN's national drive produced 1.3 million voter applications.
ACORN first detected problems in Miami-Dade County in June 2008, according to a letter the group wrote to prosecutors. Investigators eventually determined that 11 canvassers, who were paid between $8 and $10 an hour, were turning in fake registration cards, mostly from the Homestead area.
"This is really about money. These are people who decided not to work," said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for Miami-Dade State Attorney Katharine Fernandez Rundle.
The 11 workers each face multiple counts of two felony charges: false swearing in connection with voting and submission of false voter registration information. Each count is punishable by up to five years in prison.
The suspects collectively turned in about 1,400 registration cards, of which 888 were later found to be faked. Some contained names of celebrities such as actor Paul Newman, while in other cases the same real voter's name was used on multiple applications. There was no evidence anyone voted who should not have.
The FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement had made five arrests by midday and were looking for the remaining suspects. ACORN officials said the group regularly reports suspected fraud to authorities nationwide but the Miami prosecution marks one of the few times the complaints were taken seriously. ACORN last year was the subject of fraudulent registration complaints in Missouri, Wisconsin, New Mexico, Ohio, Michigan and North Carolina, among others.