TALLAHASSEE - A national group working to increase the minimum wage in Florida is on the hot seat over its methods.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement Thursday said the Association of Community Organizations For Reform Now, or ACORN, is a target of a statewide investigation of voter irregularities.
The group faces criminal investigations in a half-dozen other states over voter registration and petition signatures gathered by its employees.
Receipts obtained by the St. Petersburg Times suggest that at least three ACORN employees were paid $2 for each voter registration card they collected during the week of April 19. The receipts have been given to state investigators.
It's legal to pay people to register voters but the pay cannot be based on the number of voters they register.
Brian Kettenring, ACORN's Florida director, denied paying for voter registration, and said the receipts were done under the supervision of an employee who has since been fired for trying to cash a check made out to the group's political action committee.
FDLE Commissioner Guy Tunnell said several investigations around Florida were prompted by complaints from voters. Some complainants said they thought they were signing petitions and later found their signatures - possibly forged - on fraudulent registration forms.
In some cases, it appears workers filled in information that should have been completed by the voter, Tunnell said.
Some workers also appeared to have signed multiple voter registration forms.
In a lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday, former ACORN employee Mac Stuart said ACORN took voter registration forms from known felons and put false information on petitions used to get a proposed minimum wage increase on the Nov. 2 ballot.
A lawyer for ACORN said Stuart was fired in August after he tried to cash a $5,000 check to Floridians for All, ACORN's political action committee backing the amendment.
Faith Gay, a Miami lawyer who represents ACORN, has asked state and federal prosecutors to investigate the check cashing.
Gay said she found it strange that FDLE announced the investigation when it failed to return ACORN's phone calls offering to cooperate.
FDLE began investigating ACORN last month after Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho questioned whether 1,500 registration forms had been altered.
A 2003 internal ACORN plan suggests that increasing Democratic turnout to defeat President Bush was the main goal of the amendment.
ACORN calls itself a nonpartisan group dedicated to helping low wage workers.
"A Florida constitutional amendment initiative to create a minimum wage of $6.15 with indexing will help defeat George W. Bush and other Republicans by increasing Democratic turnout in a close election," the plan notes.
"I'm disappointed that an organization like ACORN would do this, but I'm not surprised," said Mark Wilson, head of Votesmartflorida.org, a Florida Chamber of Commerce group opposing the minimum wage amendment.
Kettenring said the minimum wage amendment "is all about raising the minimum wage and helping working families." He has acknowledged the amendment would drive working people to the polls.
Joe Johnson, a veteran St. Petersburg political consultant hired by ACORN earlier this year to run the Florida campaign, said he was repeatedly told that helping Democrats was the main goal.
"Even if we lost the election, we would still be winning by building critical mass," Johnson said.
Johnson left the campaign in August and says he grew increasingly uncomfortable ACORN's methods.
One concern: the group's failure to turn in complete voter registration cards.