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Nadler: ‘Defund’ ACORN Bill ‘Blatantly Unconstitutional’

nadlerCongressman Jerrold Nadler, D-NY, denounced a Republican amendment adopted by the House of Representatives Thursday to deny all federal funds to the advocacy group the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) as blatantly unconstitutional and a threat to unpopular organizations everywhere.

Nadler said the Republican initiative, the Defund ACORN Act, introduced by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-CA, singles out a specific organization by name for exclusion from participating in any federal program, in direct violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against Bills of Attainder. The amendment was attached to a student loan bill.

“Today’s Republican amendment is in blatant violation of the Constitution’s prohibition against Bills of Attainder,” said Nadler, the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. “Congress must not be in the business of punishing individual organizations or people without trial, and that’s what this amendment does. Whatever one may think of an organization, the Constitution’s clear ban on Bills of Attainder is there for the protection of all of our liberties.”

The Supreme Court, in decisions dating back to the Civil War era, has held that the Constitution prohibits all legislative acts, “no matter what their form, that apply either to named individuals or to easily ascertainable members of a group in such a way as to inflict punishment on them without a judicial trial….”

Nadler said during the McCarthy era, Congress enacted legislation prohibiting the use of funds to pay the salaries of three federal employees who Congress deemed subversive. The Supreme Court ruled this legislation unconstitutional as a Bill of Attainder.

Nadler added that the amendment, in addition to being clearly unconstitutional, sets a dangerous precedent of Congress punishing politically disfavored groups without any due process.

Last week, the Census Bureau announced that it was cutting ties with the organization, which had been enlisted to assist with the 2010 census count.

On Monday, the Senate voted 83- 7 in favor of an amendment that blocks ACORN from receiving transportation and housing funds. That measure was introduced by Sen. Mike Johanns, R-NE. Johanns introduced a second amendment Thursday, this time to cut off any funding ACORN may receive from the Department of the Interior. The measure passed 85-11 and received a “yea” vote from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, accused Republicans of orchestrating a political stunt. She said ACORN does not receive Interior Department funds and the introduction of the amendment was “unnecessary.”

The bills that the Senate and House amendments are attached to need to be signed into law by President Obama before it can take effect. The language in the amendments can still be changed or stripped from the final version of the bills.

ACORN’s most recent troubles began last week after videotapes surfaced showing employees advising conservative activists who posed as a pimp and a prostitute ways in which they could break the law. The group sponsors voter registration drives and helps low-income people secure housing. ACORN has offices in 110 cities and employs more than 700 people and says it has 400,00 families listed as members.

In a statement released Wednesday in response to videos that showed the two conservative activists, who posed as a prostitute and her pimp, being advised by ACORN employees on ways in which they could purchase a house and fill out tax forms, ACORN chief executive Bertha Lewis said the organization would suspend its efforts to attract new clients while an internal investigation is being conducted.

As a result of the indefensible action of a handful of our employees, I am, in consultation with ACORN’s Executive Committee, immediately ordering a halt to any new intakes into ACORN’s service programs until completion of an independent review. I have also communicated with ACORN’s independent Advisory Council, and they will assist ACORN in naming an independent auditor and investigator to conduct a thorough review of all of the organizations relevant systems and processes. That reviewer, to be named within 48 hours, will make recommendations directly to me and to the full ACORN Board. We enter this process with a commitment that all recommendations will be implemented.

Lewis added that the move to strip ACORN of federal funding was part of a “multiyear political assault stemming variously from the Bush White House, Fox News and other conservative quarters.”

ACORN fired the employees who appeared in the videos. Still, California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called on state Attorney General Jerry Brown to launch an investigation into the group’s activities. The employees in some of the videos were based San Bernardino.

In a floor statement after the House voted 345-75, which included the support of 172 Democrats, to cut off federal funds to the group, Nadler spoke out against the amendment.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. A little while ago, the House passed an amendment to the bill that we were considering that says no contract or federal funds may ever go to ACORN, a named organization, or to any individual or organization affiliated with ACORN. Unfortunately, this was done in the spirit of the moment and nobody had the opportunity to point out that this is a flat violation of the Constitution, constituting a Bill of Attainder. The Constitution says that Congress shall never pass a Bill of Attainder. Bills of Attainder, no matter what their form, apply either to a named individual or to easily ascertainable members of a group, to inflict punishment. That’s exactly what this amendment does.

It may be that ACORN is guilty of various infractions, and, if so, it ought to be vetted, or maybe sanctioned, by the appropriate administrative agency or by the judiciary. Congress must not be in the business of punishing individual organizations or people without trial.

That’s what this Amendment did. It is flatly prohibited by the Constitution, and once we ignore the Constitution we ignore constitutional principles. Whatever one may think of the subject matter or the organization, the Constitution and the ban on Bills of Attainder are there for the protection of all of our liberties. It is unfortunate that we passed this, and I hope it is removed in the conference committee.

In a statement after the vote, Boehner said, “today’s overwhelming bipartisan vote to stop all federal funding of ACORN is a victory for American taxpayers. Of course, it is only the beginning. We need to keep up the fight to end taxpayer funding for this troubled organization.”

He added:

House Republicans have worked tirelessly to sever ACORN’s ties to the federal government. Those efforts began to bear fruit late last week when the Census Bureau ended its relationship with ACORN under steady pressure from Republican lawmakers. Though today’s vote indicates that the writing’s on the wall for ACORN, President Obama must indicate whether he will join the Congress in taking decisive action to break all government ties with this corrupt organization.

But Republicans vowed to take their crusade against the organization even further with Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, calling for a Justice Department probe.

ACORN has violated serious federal laws, and today the House voted to ensure that taxpayer dollars would no longer be used to fund this corrupt organization. All federal ties should be severed with ACORN, and the FBI should investigate its activity. This united Republican effort to defund ACORN is a victory for the rule of law and taxpayers across the country.

Sen. John Cornyn, and 26 other Senate Republicans sent a letter Thursday to Reid demanding that he hold public hearing.

“As the organization’s laundry list of fraudulent activity and abuse of taxpayer dollars continues to grow, it is time to crack open ACORN and expose once and for all the organization’s full record of offenses,” Cornyn said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday that she supports those efforts.

“A few people have embarrassed ACORN. We have to have our own investigation,” she said, adding that the employees caught on tape allegedly giving illegal advice is “unacceptable.”

White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, in response to a question by ABC News’ Jake Tapper, that the “conduct.. on those tapes is completely unacceptable. I think everyone would agree with that. The administration takes accountability extremely seriously.”

ACORN has been a target of Republican lawmakers and operatives for nearly a decade over false claims of voter registration fraud.

At the height of hotly contested elections in 2002, 2004, and 2006, the Justice Department issued a directive to every U.S. attorney in the country to find and prosecute cases of voter fraud even though evidence of such abuses was extremely thin or non-existent, according to a former federal prosecutor.

David Iglesias, the former U.S. attorney for New Mexico, recalled receiving an email in late summer 2002 from the Department of Justice suggesting “in no uncertain terms” that US attorneys should immediately begin working with local and state election officials “to offer whatever assistance we could in investigating and prosecuting voter fraud cases,” Iglesias wrote in his memoir, In Justice: Inside the Scandal that Rocked the Bush Administration.

Iglesias was fired in 2006 after he refused to prosecute what turned out to be unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud leveled against ACORN.

Last year, during the height of the presidential campaign ACORN once again became a target of Republican attacks over claims the organization was involved in a nationwide voter registration fraud scheme.

Trying to salvage his campaign last year, John McCain declared ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

In his book, Iglesias recounted how the Department of Justice aggressively pushed him and other US attorneys to prosecute voter fraud cases, an issue the former US attorney says the DOJ became unusually obsessed with.

“The e-mail imperatives came again in 2004 and 2006, by which time I had learned that far from being standard operating procedure for the Justice Department, the emphasis on voter irregularities was unique to the Bush administration,” Iglesias wrote.

Iglesias said that Republican officials in his state were far less interested in election reforms and more intent on suppressing votes.

“But there was a more sinister reading to such urgent calls for reform, not to mention the Justice Department’s strident insistence on harvesting a bumper crop of voter fraud prosecutions.”

“Not only did the [Bush] administration stoop to such seamy expedients to press its agenda in 2004,” Iglesias wrote. “It had the full might and authority of the federal government and its prosecutorial powers to accomplish its ends.”