Vote Outreach Group to Weed Out Ex-Cons

A political group that paid felons to conduct door-to-door voter registration drives with the aim of ousting President Bush in the 2004 election pledged Thursday to weed out any employees convicted of violent or serious offenses.

America Coming Together (search) announced a new policy for background checks after The Associated Press reported Wednesday that ACT had used people convicted of burglary, assault and sex offenses to canvass neighborhoods in at least three election swing states — Missouri, Florida and Ohio. It declined to define what it considers violent or serious offenses under the new policy.

Since spring, "our policy has been that we're not going to employ violent felons," the group's Washington-based spokesman Mo Elliethee said Thursday. "We're going to conduct this background check to ensure we're not."

ACT is an independent group not affiliated with the campaign of Democratic candidate John Kerry (search). Although federal law forbids a campaign to coordinate activities with such groups, veteran Democratic political operatives, many with past ties to Kerry and his advisers, work for ACT.

The Kerry campaign said Wednesday it was unaware of ACT's hiring practices and had nothing to do with them. ACT plans to spend about $100 million on initiatives to get out the vote in hopes of boosting Kerry's chances.

ACT employs about 1,000 canvassers in 17 swing states, paying them $8-$12 an hour to ask residents which issues are important to them and, if they are not registered, sign them up as voters. Employees gather telephone numbers and other personal information — birth dates, driver's license numbers or partial Social Security numbers, depending on each state's requirements for voter registration.

A review of federal campaign finance and state criminal records by The Associated Press revealed that the names and hometowns of dozens of ACT employees in Missouri, Florida and Ohio matched those of people convicted of crimes such as burglary, forgery, drug dealing, assault and sex offenses. At least seven parolees were still living at Missouri halfway houses when employed by ACT, and four of those later were returned to prison.

The names of two ACT employees in Ohio matched the names of people convicted of murder and rape, but the AP was unable verify that they lived at the addresses listed by ACT in filings with the federal Election Commission. ACT has declined to verify the criminal backgrounds of any specific employees.

Ohio Republican Party Chairman Robert Bennett on Thursday called upon ACT to immediately disclose all current employees "and reassure Ohioans that these violent offenders are not canvassing their neighborhood."

Elliethee said ACT would fire — or refuse to hire — anyone convicted of "violent or other serious offenses." He said the decision to start background checks was made during a Wednesday night meeting of the group's senior staff.

"We continue to believe people deserve a second chance, and we will continue to offer that chance for people who are re-entering society to participate in our program," he said. "But our policy is to not hire anyone who we deem not to be safe."

ACT also targets voters in major metropolitan areas in Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.