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ACORN CHAOS ENGULFS CRIST

Marco Rubio turns up the heat on Gov. Crist, who defended the agency last year.

The tidal wave of controversy over ACORN swept rapidly through Florida on Thursday with dozens of angry people contacting Gov. Charlie Crist's office and his political rival questioning his ties to the organization.

A top Florida House Republican, meanwhile, said the Legislature could take its own action against the national community organizing group, which has been severely damaged by hidden camera video showing workers giving tax advice to a couple posing as a prostitute and a pimp.

"The jig is up for ACORN," said state Rep. Adam Hasner, R-Boca Raton, a longtime critic of the group, which helped register hundreds of thousands of voters nationwide in the 2008 election.

Though ACORN, which stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, has been controversial over the years, the presidential election revealed incidents in Florida and other states where ACORN workers made up bogus voter registration forms, including one for Mickey Mouse.

Crist's challenger for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate in 2010 invoked the storm in a letter Thursday.

"Despite what now seems to be a prescient chorus of concerned parties asking for an investigation into ACORN's elected-related activities, you insisted that you were unconcerned," wrote former House Speaker Marco Rubio of Miami. "In light of the recent allegations against ACORN, I suggest you reconsider your position."

Rubio was alluding to comments Crist made in October that he did not think voter fraud and the voter-registration group ACORN were a major problem in Florida. "As we're coming into the closing days of any campaign, there are some who enjoy chaos," Crist told reporters, an apparent rebuke to some fellow Republicans.

Asked Tuesday if he had any concern with the legitimacy of ACORN's petition-gathering or voter registration efforts in Florida, Crist said, "It's a precious right that we all should enjoy, and so long as it's done right, any group has the right to do so. And if any group does it wrong, they should be stopped from doing so that way."

By Thursday, the firestorm had grown exponentially larger, with Congress moving to cut off federal funds for ACORN, which provides counseling for people trying to find housing and other services in addition to voter registration.

Rubio called on Crist to follow other governors, including Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, in launching an investigation into the group.

Rubio also asked Crist for a full accounting of any influence ACORN may have had in the effort to change Florida law denying voting rights to certain ex-convicts.

The letter, despite any political motivation by Rubio, puts Crist in an awkward position - the ACORN Web site features a photo of him with a woman wearing a red ACORN T-shirt - and he did not directly respond.

Instead, Crist's office sent Rubio the same response given to about 100 constituents who contacted the office about ACORN.

It said that an investigation is already under way and stressed that ACORN has not received taxpayer money through the legislative appropriation process.

Since last summer, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been involved in an investigation into fraudulent voter registration forms submitted by signature gatherers in Miami.

Last week, the FDLE announced it was arresting 11 people in connection with the bogus applications. Of 260 reviewed, 197 appeared fraudulent. ACORN flagged the applications itself and turned them over to authorities, saying it showed internal accountability checks worked.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning's office reiterated Thursday that there was no evidence that fraudulent applications had resulted in actual voters being placed on the rolls.

"We have a high level of confidence in our voter rolls due to quality control in place, such as the voter verification process," said spokeswoman Jennifer Krell Davis.

Crist's response will likely not satisfy everyone. Jack Seitz, a 70-year-old Pasco County resident, said he called Crist's office Thursday and insisted on immediate action.

"He needs to go after ACORN's books right now and expose the truth, expose the corruption," Seitz said. "This is no time to wait."

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Back in Washington, the scandal over the undercover videos prompted the House on Thursday afternoon to follow the Senate and vote on an amendment denying funding to ACORN.

The vote, on a provision attached to a student aid bill, was 345-75, with Democrats supplying all the "no" votes.

Florida Democrats voting no included Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville and Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton.

Rep. Kendrick Meek, a Miami Democrat who is running for U.S. Senate along with Crist and Rubio, said he voted yes because of lingering problems with ACORN.

"The accountability from the top down has not been in place," he said. "We're the stewards of the taxpayer dollars, and we're going to have to turn the spigot off until they get their act together."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, also voted for the amendment but said ACORN was being maligned through the actions of some bad employees (who have been fired or suspended).

"I don't think that a couple of people getting sabotaged by right-wing conservatives with cameras means that type of conduct is pervasive through the whole organization," she said. "The organization overall has done a lot of good."

Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Obama's links to ACORN

Republican strategist Karl Rove said on Fox News that President Barack Obama "used to be a lawyer for" ACORN. Turns out, that's Half-True. To learn more about that ruling and others, go to PolitiFact.com.

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