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ACORN: Preliminary Autopsy for Battered Community Organizer

4 years ago
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ACORN is losing its state affiliates and is on the brink of bankruptcy. Once a body of more than 400,000 members and 1,200 neighborhood chapters in 75 American cities, ACORN has been pounded for the last six months following a now famous pimp and prostitute "sting."
Documented by suspiciously edited videotapes, the political theater starring James O'Keefe III as the trick-turning avenger set off investigations by five federal agencies including the FBI and the Government Accountability Office (GAO), sparked several congressional hearings, led quickly to suspension of government funding, and soon thereafter, to the desertion of private donors.
On Saturday, the New York Times confirmed ACORN is planning to file for dissolution. The O'Keefe sting was certainly the fatal blow but it was not the first attack on the beleaguered advocate for the disenfranchised. The 40-year-old liberal organization founded to empower the impoverished has been the target of official inquiries and well-financed public condemnations by conservative political leaders over alleged voter registration errors for at least the last five years. By the time a miniskirted young woman and her oddly dressed male companion turned up at several ACORN offices last August in a ruse to embarrass the group, it was weak and damaged.
Wade Rathke, a 1960s-era counterculture activist, founded ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, in 1970. Funded by donations and fueled by volunteers, over time, the organization fattened its budget with foundation grants and government contracts from the Census Bureau, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, FEMA and other agencies. For years, ACORN concentrated on helping low-income clients find affordable housing, deal with welfare programs or mortgage foreclosures, and gain federal earned income tax credits. The organization opposed discriminatory red-lining by mortgage lenders and predatory banking practices, plus it won lawsuits against financial giants like H&R Block, accused of victimizing low-income people.
During George W. Bush's presidency, ACORN broadened its scope to include campaigning on behalf of local "living wage" ordinances, state minimum wage ballot initiatives, and registering low-income and minority voters on a national scale. Many ACORN chapters are located in rough-edged parts of poor American communities in places like Detroit, Baltimore, and the Bronx. ACORN offered its member clients -- families in crime-ridden neighborhoods with unsanitary living conditions and poor schools -- assistance with food stamps, housing subsidies, and filing income tax returns. When the national organization took on the U.S. electoral system, however, it started drawing fire from America's political right.
By 2004, ACORN's voter enrollment efforts in Florida, Ohio, New Mexico, and Wisconsin attracted charges of fraud. Though ACORN was sometimes less than diligent in its voter registration process (several names of fictional characters turned up on lists gathered by part-time and temporary workers), a congressional inquiry later concluded imaginary voters did not actually attempt to cast ballots in any election.

ACORN spokesman Kevin Whalen said state-level investigations of Project Vote, ACORN's voter registration organization, were stirred up by conservative groups led by the American Center for Voting Rights based in Midlothian, Va. That goup was chaired at the time by Brian Lunder, the 2004 head of "Democrats for Bush," and directed by Robin DeJarnette, also founder and executive director of the Virginia Conservative Action PAC. The American Center for Voting Rights disbanded in 2007.
Joel Bliefuss, long-time editor of the left-leaning Chicago-based In These Times news magazine, challenged the notion of voter fraud by ACORN: "Understanding that one way to win closely contested elections is to keep Democratic voters away from the polls, the Republican Party has tried to stoke public fears of voter fraud." He cited a 2005 report, "The Politics of Voter Fraud," by Lorraine C. Minnite, professor of political science at Columbia University, that states: "The claim that voter fraud threatens the integrity of American elections is itself a fraud...used to persuade the public that deceitful and criminal voters are manipulating the electoral system." According to Minnite's report: "The exaggerated fear of voter fraud has a long history of scuttling efforts to make voting easier and more inclusive, especially for marginalized groups in American society."
According to a report by the New York Times, only about 120 people as of 2006 had been charged with election crimes over the previous five years, leading to only 86 convictions. Most of cases involved simple mistakes by ineligible immigrants or felons who misunderstood election requirements.
Nevertheless, in 2006, ACORN, received a letter from Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, accusing the organization of involvement in partisan politics stemming from its voter registration drives in violation of its nonprofit tax status. He requested that ACORN provide his staff with detailed documentation related to personnel, affiliations, fundraising, expenditures, transfer of goods, leasing of facilities, contacts, programs, and organizational charts. In addition, he sought its public nonprofit tax return as a list of particulars on anyone who might want to talk trash about the group: "Documents concerning any employee, agent, volunteer, or independent contractor whose involvement with ACORN ... was terminated."
According to ACORN's outside counsel, the Washington-based firm of Harmon & Curran, Grassley's demand came not from the committee, but from the senator personally. Although ACORN partially filled the requests, no hearings were ever held. When Grassley lost his committee chairmanship following the 2008 elections, the inquiry was dropped.
Through 2008, ACORN continued to concentrate on voter registration in key presidential election swing states where participation by low-income and minority voters was particularly low.
At the same time, the group suffered from internal managerial problems, most notably an embezzlement of nearly $1 million from ACORN's treasury by a brother of its founder. The news rocked the organization, angering foundation donors that learned details of the embezzlement had been concealed for eight years. The Rathke family pledged full restitution, Wade Rathke was fired, and his brother was spared prosecution. ACORN did an audit and carried out a reorganization headed by a new CEO, Bertha Lewis, former president of the group's New York chapter.
ACORN's national voter registration and mobilization efforts continued to face charges of voter registration irregularities in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, Indiana, Michigan, and Minnesota.
In the weeks before the 2008 national election, the McCain-Palin campaign called a news conference in an attempt to link ACORN to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. In the final presidential debate, John McCain singled out ACORN, saying the group was "destroying the fabric of democracy," even though McCain had previously been an ACORN supporter.
ACORN, meanwhile, announced it had registered hundreds of thousands of voters in the swing states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan. The New Organizing Institute, a progressive political training organization founded by former Democratic presidential campaign staffers, recently released a report saying that 746,000 people who voted in 2008 had been assisted with registration by ACORN since 2004.
On July 23, 2009, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) issued a report charging ACORN with "hiding behind a paper wall of nonprofit protections to conceal a criminal conspiracy...to pursue a partisan political agenda and ... manipulate the American electorate." The 88-page document, titled: "Is ACORN Intentionally Structured as a Criminal Enterprise?," accused ACORN of fraud, organizational mismanagement, violating employee insurance and savings plan rules, failing to fulfill its corporate duties, lack of control over its employees, violating nonprofit restrictions, and engaging in prohibited lobbying activities -- all of this in the context of the embezzlement. It concluded that ACORN should be subject to federal prosecution. Issa's report generated substantial publicity, but no congressional committee hearings, floor action, or prosecutions.
Soon after Issa's report, Sen. Grassley, using a Senate Finance Committee minority staff review of ACORN's 2006 tax returns, again asserted that ACORN-associated organizations had used government and grant money to pay for partisan political work. No Senate committee hearings were held and no prosecutions were initiated.
Two weeks later came the videotaped "stings" at eight ACORN offices, starring 20-year-old Hannah Giles, posing as a prostitute, and 25-year-old James O'Keefe, posing as a pimp. O'Keefe and Giles visited offices of ACORN Housing, a non-profit group which is legally separate from ACORN, in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Washington, D.C. They asked for advice on illegal schemes while secretly videotaping answers from seemingly cooperative ACORN employees. The six videotapes released to the public show O'Keefe and Giles dressed in clichéd "pimp and prostitute" clothes.
On Sept. 10, 2009, right-wing blogger and former Matt Drudge associate Andrew Breitbart launched a Web site called BigGovernment.com and showcased the videos on consecutive days. "At the very least, filmmaker James O'Keefe and actress Hannah Giles deserve a Pulitzer Prize for their expose," Breitbart wrote.
Early news reports, particularly right-leaning outlets, characterized O'Keefe and Giles as student freelance investigative reporters, whose efforts were lauded as enterprising journalism.
But O'Keefe and Giles had financial support. According to news reports, Giles was trained and employed by the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C., which is funded, its Web site says, by the conservative Young American Foundation to "recruit and prepare conservative young reporters for journalism careers." The left-leaning Village Voice reported that millionaire Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook, provided a $10,000 grant to help O'Keefe produce an earlier film. The Leadership Institute, which helped sponsor O'Keefe's student newspaper career at Rutgers University, is supported, according to its Web site, by reliable conservative funding sources Coors, Amway and billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife.
Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog blog, described the media frenzy that followed the release of the videos:
"Breitbart has a direct line to Glenn Beck, and videos went from BG and YouTube to TV and radio. Picked up by right-wing pundit Monica Crowley, then Rush Limbaugh, then radio host Jim Quinn. Fox News' Megan Kelly had Karl Rove on. She labeled [ACORN] a criminal enterprise and Sean Hannity announced ACORN was about to receive 'eight and a half trillion dollars' of stimulus money, 1,000 times greater than the equally fictitious billions that Beck had accorded the government. ACORN had suddenly ballooned from an organization which had received $53 million in 15 years to representing 67 percent of America's gross domestic product."
BigGovernment.com became a conservative sensation and now lists some 200 content contributors from the right side of the American politics. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), for example, posted "FEMA Grant to ACORN is Offensive," and Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) weighed in with "Johanns Amendment Will Defund ACORN."
In the House of Representatives, Issa led a successful move to pass legislation blocking ACORN from receiving further federal funds. By late September, ACORN had been abandoned by longtime "community financial services partners" Bank of America and J.P. Morgan, as well as donors such as the Ford, Marguerite Casey, Annie E. Casey, and Carnegie foundations. Congress passed legislation banning any future federal funding for ACORN and it was signed into law. It was immediately challenged by ACORN in federal court and eventually declared unconstitutional. The U.S. attorney in Louisiana subpoenaed records of ACORN W-2s, canceled checks, correspondence and e-mails going back to 1996. The FBI issued a demand for files regarding people who had sought help from ACORN Housing offices in New York and Washington, D.C.
ACORN hired former Democratic Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger to conduct a study of its operations and also the O'Keefe incident. Harshbarger issued a report criticizing ACORN's management shortcomings and recommending the group return to its "core competency – community organizing." Though it got very little press attention, the Harshbarger report noted that O'Keefe had not posed as a pimp when entering ACORN offices with Giles, but as a college student. "Although Mr. O'Keefe appeared in all videos dressed as a pimp, in fact, when he appeared at each and every office, he was dressed like a college student -- in slacks and a button down shirt." O'Keefe is wearing a garish "pimp" costume in the edited videos he subsequently released. (Though the unedited footage has not been released, the New York Daily News recently quoted sources in the Brooklyn, N.Y., district attorney's office, who reviewed O'Keefe's unedited ACORN video. The sources claimed the finished versions were a "heavily edited splice job" and that "they edited the tape to meet their agenda.")
In December, 2009, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service released a report, requested by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), saying that federal agencies had awarded money to ACORN 48 times and that in no instance had the group violated the terms of its funding. According to the report, ACORN had been the subject of 46 inquiries by federal, state and local agencies, including the FBI, the Treasury Department and Congress, and that "no instances were identified in which ACORN violated the terms of federal funding in the last five years."
The report, based on Conyers' summary, also said "there were no instances of individuals who were allegedly registered to vote by ACORN or its employees and who were attempting to vote at the polls." Citing the sting operation, the report noted that in Maryland and California, laws "appear to ban private recording of face to face conversations absent the consent of all the participants." When the state of Maryland began investigating the incident, Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) proclaimed in BigGovernment.com that "Maryland Shouldn't Prosecute ACORN Filmmakers."
In an independent report released in September 2009, Peter Drieir, the Director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Christopher R. Martin, a professor of journalism at the University of Northern Iowa, wrote:
"The attacks on ACORN originated with business groups and political groups that opposed ACORN's organizing work around living wages, predatory lending and registration of minority and low-income voters. These groups created frames to discredit ACORN that were utilized by conservative "opinion entrepreneurs" within the conservative "echo chamber" -- publications, TV and radio talk shows, blogs and websites, think tanks and columnists -- to test, refine, and circulate narrative frames about ACORN."
In February, 2010, O'Keefe and three other men were arrested on suspicion of posing as telephone repairmen and secretly taping in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans government office. They waived their rights to a preliminary hearing, and prosecutors were given 30 days to consider indictments, a deadline rapidly approaching.
Michael Madigan, a $500-$900 an hour Washington criminal lawyer with the worldwide firm, Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe, did not return telephone calls inquiring about his representation of O'Keefe in the Louisiana federal proceedings. AboveTheLaw blog reported the WilmerHale law firm, also Washington-based, is providing pro bono representation to Giles in the legal actions in Maryland and California. The Liberty Legal Institute, a conservative non-profit organization which on its Web site says it "offers its assistance pro bono to ensure all individuals and groups can thrive without the fear of governments restricting their freedoms," says it is also representing Giles in the state actions. At this point, neither Giles nor O'Keefe have been charged.
For ACORN's part, CEO Lewis admits it was guilty of carelessness and mismanagement, but says the destruction of the organization was due to "a deliberate, relentless, well-funded, well-coordinated attack from the right."
Plus, she said, "The funders all bailed out...We still have small donors, small foundations, member dues, but not enough to sustain a national organization with multiple chapters."
Lewis berated certain "frenemies" in the progressive community who, she said, used to complain about ACORN in the "Who do they think they are?" way and are now saying "When the storm hit, they got their comeuppance."
But Lewis says who or what killed the old ACORN might not matter now.
"They tore the Band-Aids off our sores and we weren't there," she said. "But our attackers miscalculated. The state chapters go very deep and very local, and they know how to manage and be fiscally responsible. The [political right wing] will now be dealing with 17, 18, 19 kick-ass new, independent organizations, and they are raring to go."
Filed Under: PD Investigations

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