Acorn Probe Urged

Bartlett Wants Investigation

Census Cuts Ties With Group

September 12, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,justin.fenton@baltsun.com

A Maryland congressman called for an investigation of ACORN after a second video surfaced that appeared to show its employees offering tax advice for criminal activities, but city prosecutors say the surreptitious recordings themselves might have violated state law.

Meanwhile, the Census Bureau said it was severing ties with the organization, which also has been the target of complaints about fraudulent voter registration.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now has been under fire since Thursday, when a hidden-camera video shot in its Baltimore office surfaced. The video shows a man and woman posing as a pimp and a prostitute asking two apparently unwitting ACORN employees for advice on skirting tax and other laws.

Baltimore State's Attorney Patricia A. Jessamy said allegations of tax fraud would fall under federal jurisdiction, but the apparently secret taping, or spreading it online, could represent a violation of the state's two-party consent laws for recording conversations. A spokesman said it would take a formal complaint to trigger an investigation. Baltimore police said late Friday that no such complaint had been filed.

The two part-time ACORN employees were fired Thursday. On Friday, a second video surfaced depicting a similar scenario at the organization's Washington office.

ACORN officials have condemned the videos as part of a smear campaign but acknowledged that the employees acted inappropriately. The organization said it was conducting an internal review.

Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican, said Congress should investigate the organization.

"Absolutely, there should be a congressional investigation since we now have a very apparent pattern of improper activities by ACORN," he said. "However, it's up to the Democratic majority to determine whether or not Congress will hold oversight hearings to justify any future taxpayer funding of ACORN."

ACORN, which provides services to the needy, emerged as a target of Republicans during the 2008 presidential campaign, when it was accused of submitting fraudulent voter registration cards in several states. Although officially nonpartisan, the organization tends to serve communities that traditionally vote Democratic.

Earlier this week, police in Florida began arresting 11 ACORN canvassers on charges of falsifying hundreds of voter applications during a registration drive last year. Authorities were acting on a tip from the organization itself.

In splitting with ACORN, Census Director Robert Groves sought to tamp down GOP concerns that the organization would taint the 2010 head count.

"It is clear that ACORN's affiliation with the 2010 census promotion has caused sufficient concern in the general public, has indeed become a distraction from our mission, and may even become a discouragement to public cooperation, negatively impacting 2010 census efforts," Groves wrote in a letter obtained by the Associated Press.

A spokeswoman for Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler said his office had received many e-mails and phone calls from people concerned about the apparent promotion of tax fraud and child abuse shown in the Baltimore video, but she said that any potential violations appeared to fall out of its jurisdiction. Representatives of the Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein and state Comptroller Peter Franchot said they knew about the videos but would not comment on whether they would investigate.

Maryland law requires all parties to consent to electronic recordings.

Joseph Murtha, a Lutherville attorney who represented Linda Tripp when she was charged with secretly recording conversations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, said prosecutors rarely pursue such charges. Charges against Tripp were dropped.

The key, Murtha said, is whether those being recorded have an expectation of privacy. Murtha said the Baltimore ACORN employees were acting on behalf of an agency and in their official capacity, with more than one person present and with a meeting room door open. "I think it would be a hard sell to prove that they had a legitimate expectation of privacy," he said.

In the videos, posted on BigGovernment.com, a man and woman ask how to account for their income on tax forms and how to buy a house to use as a brothel.

The filmmakers, James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, have said they were shocked that they were not turned away. ACORN officials say similar attempts were unsuccessful in New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, where employees called police.

ACORN officials said Friday that they were "appalled and angry" to see the video of two Washington employees offering advice on how to operate an illegal enterprise and keep it hidden from the government. But they also stressed that the employees did not break any laws, saying "no loan documents were signed or submitted, no bank loans were arranged, no new business was established."

Baltimore Sun reporter Paul West and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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