WASHINGTON - A New Mexico lawyer who pressed to oust U.S. Attorney David Iglesias was an officer of a nonprofit group that aided Republican candidates in 2006 by pressing for tougher voter identification laws.
Iglesias, who was one of nine U.S. attorneys the administration fired last year, said that Albuquerque lawyer Patrick Rogers pressured him several times to bring voter fraud prosecutions where little evidence existed. Iglesias believes that he was fired in part because he failed to pursue such cases.
He described Rogers, who declined to discuss the exchanges, as "obsessed . . . convinced there was massive voter fraud going on in this state, and I needed to do something to stop it."
Iglesias said he only recently learned of Rogers' involvement as secretary of the non-profit American Center for Voting Rights Legislative Fund - an activist group that defended tighter voter identification requirements in court against charges that they were designed to hamper voting by poor minorities.
Rogers, a former general counsel to the New Mexico Republican Party and a candidate to replace Iglesias, is among a number of well-connected GOP partisans whose work with the legislative fund and a sister group played a significant role in the party's effort to retain control of Congress in the 2006 election.
That strategy, which presidential adviser Karl Rove alluded to in an April 2006 speech to the Republican National Lawyers Association, sought to scrutinize voter registration records, win passage of tougher ID laws and challenge the legitimacy of voters considered likely to vote Democratic.
McClatchy Newspapers has found that this election strategy was active on at least three fronts:
- Tax-exempt groups such as the American Center and the Lawyers Association were deployed in battleground states to press for restrictive ID laws and oversee balloting.
- The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division turned traditional voting rights enforcement upside down with legal policies that narrowed rather than protected the rights of minorities.
- The White House and the Justice Department encouraged selected U.S. attorneys to bring voter fraud prosecutions, despite studies showing that election fraud isn't a widespread problem.
Nowhere was the breadth of these actions more obvious than at the American Center for Voting Rights and its legislative fund.
Public records show that the two nonprofits were active in at least nine states. They hired high-priced lawyers to write court briefs, issued news releases declaring key cities "hot spots" for voter fraud and hired lobbyists in Missouri and Pennsylvania to win support for photo ID laws. In each of those states, the center released polls that it claimed found that minorities prefer tougher ID laws.
Armed with $1.5 million in combined funding, the two nonprofits attracted some powerful volunteers and a cadre of high-priced lawyers.
Of the 15 individuals affiliated with the two groups, at least seven are members of the Republican National Lawyers Association, and half a dozen have worked for either one Bush election campaign or for the Republican National Committee.
Alex Vogel, a former RNC lawyer whose consulting firm was paid $75,000 for several months' service as the center's executive director, said the funding came from private donors, not from the Republican Party.
One target of the American Center was the liberal-leaning voter registration group called Project Vote, a GOP nemesis that registered 1.5 million voters in 2004 and 2006. The center trumpeted allegations that Project Vote's main contractor, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), submitted phony registration forms to boost Democratic voting.
In a controversial move, the interim U.S. attorney in Kansas City announced indictments against four ACORN workers five days before the 2006 election, despite the fact that Justice Department policy discourages such action close to an election. Acorn officials had notified the federal officials when they noticed the doctored forms.
"Their job was to confuse the public about voter fraud and offer bogus solutions to the problem," said Michael Slater, the deputy director of Project Vote, "And like the Tobacco Institute, they relied on deception and faulty research to advance the interests of their clients."
Mark "Thor" Hearne, a St. Louis lawyer and former national counsel for President Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, is widely considered the driving force behind the organizations. Vogel described him as "clearly the one in charge."
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Hearne, who also was a vice president and director of election operations for the Republican Lawyers Association, said he couldn't discuss the organizations because they're former clients.
But in an e-mail exchange, he defended the need for photo IDs.
"Requiring a government-issued photo ID in order to vote as a safeguard against vote fraud and as a measure to increase public confidence in the fairness and honesty of our elections is not some Republican voter suppression effort," Hearne said.
Hearne called photo IDs "an important voice in election reform."
Hearne and Rogers appeared at separate hearings before the House Administration Committee last year in Ohio and New Mexico. They cited reports of thousands of dead people on voter registration rolls, fraudulent registrations and other election fraud schemes.
As proof, Hearne, offered a 28-page "investigative report" on Ohio events in the 2004 election, and then publicly sent a copy to the Justice Department, citing "substantial evidence to suggest potential criminal wrongdoing."
So far, no charges have been filed.
Earlier, in August 2005, the Legislative Fund issued a string of press releases naming five cities as the nation's top "hot spots" for voter fraud. Philadelphia was tagged as No. 1, followed by Milwaukee, Seattle, St. Louis and Cleveland.
With a push from the center's lobbyists, legislatures in Missouri and Pennsylvania passed photo ID laws last year. Missouri's law was thrown out by the state Supreme Court, and Democratic Gov. Edward Rendell vetoed the Pennsylvania bill.
In an interview with the federal Election Assistance Commission last year, two Pennsylvania officials said they knew of no instances of voter identity fraud or voter registration fraud in the state.
Amid the controversy, the American Center for Voting Rights shuttered its Internet site on St. Patrick's Day, and the two nonprofits appear to have vanished.
But their influence could linger.
One of the directors of the American Center, Cameron Quinn, who lists her membership in the Republican National Lawyers Association on her resume, was appointed last year as the voting counsel for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.
The division is charged with policing elections and guarding against discrimination against minorities.
Researcher Tish Wells contributed to this article.
2007 McClatchy Newspapers