Washington Activist group ACORN started in 1970 to help the poor in Arkansas and quickly went national, growing into a multimillion-dollar conglomerate with a mission so far-flung that schools now bear its name, two radio stations are affiliates and a man it backed is the president. Oh yeah, it’s also the unwilling star of a hot Internet video featuring a couple dressed as a hooker and her pimp.
And that last bit is just one of its problems.
The organization praised for its Hurricane Katrina relief efforts and treated by federal, state and local governments as a valuable public resource has had nearly $1 million embezzled by its founder’s brother. The openly Democratic-leaning group has seen its employees accused of voter registration fraud, and taking it down has become a cause celebre for Republican lawmakers, activists and pundits.
As if volunteers allegedly signing up cartoon character Mickey Mouse to vote didn’t give ACORN enough bad publicity, the public is enthralled with new videos appearing on the Internet and TV news shows showing ACORN employees in Brooklyn, N.Y., advising a couple posing as a prostitute and pimp to lie to get housing aid, and employees in other cities counseling the pair on tax, banking and immigration issues.
Many Democrats used to advertise their ACORN connections. Now, however, the Democratic-led Senate has voted to cut off its grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Democrat-dominated House doesn’t want it to get any federal money, period.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called the conduct in the videos “completely unacceptable” and a prominent ally of President Barack Obama, John Podesta, is on an ACORN advisory panel working to clean up the mess.
Republicans are using ACORN to portray Democrats as corrupt and distract Obama from his policy agenda, the same way Democrats used issues involving Halliburton, the giant government contractor and ex-employer of former Vice President Dick Cheney, against the GOP during the Bush years. Top Republicans from congressional leaders to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger want criminal probes of ACORN and conservative voters are pressuring news organizations for coverage.
The Census Bureau this month cut ties with ACORN for the 2010 census, and a nonpartisan watchdog group, Citizens Against Government Waste, named senators who voted to continue financing ACORN the “September Porkers of the Month.”
More trouble ahead?
ACORN has portrayed its problems as the unfortunate work of a few employees. In the best case, that suggests it made bad hires and gave them poor training and supervision. But when the founder of a national organization admits attempting to keep quiet his brother’s theft of more than $900,000, it’s a sign that ACORN’s problems may rise high and run deep.
How did ACORN wind up in this mess? Did it simply grow too big for its own good?
The scope of government investigations into its activities is unknown. Voter registration fraud cases involving ACORN workers are pending. HUD’s inspector general has acknowledged an investigation is under way. ACORN this past week announced it would investigate the video scandal and suspend the admission of new clients into its housing program.
ACORN chief executive Bertha Lewis has pledged do whatever necessary “to re-establish the public trust.” She condemned the actions of the two employees who appeared in the Brooklyn footage, but ACORN also contends segments of the video shot there and elsewhere by the hidden-camera couple were manipulated to make it look bad.
James O’Keefe, one of the two filmmakers, said he went after ACORN because it registers minorities likely to vote against Republicans: “Politicians are getting elected single-handedly due to this organization,” O’Keefe told The Washington Post. “No one was holding this organization accountable.”
The group is confident it can ride out its troubles.
“The majority of our funding comes from our membership and from our supporters,” spokesman Brian Kettenring said. “Any attempt to try to limit our access to particular sets of funding is not likely to have much impact on our core operations. It will hurt the individuals that benefit from that particular project. It’s pretty clear this sort of attempt to cut off funding is politically motivated more than sort of driven by a high-minded concern for good governance.”
ACORN’s annual budget is $25 million, Kettenring said. Of that, about 10 percent is federal money and a much smaller share comes from state and local governments, he said. The budget covers ACORN’s national office, its state and local chapters and the ACORN Institute, Kettenring said.
ACORN doesn’t file a publicly available report with the Internal Revenue Service detailing its finances, spending, relationships and activities. Some of its arms do, but those reports do not reflect the full range of money ACORN gets or all the things it does.
HUD said last week it has given ACORN roughly
$42 million since the 2000 budget year. A July report by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said ACORN had received more than $53 million in federal money since 1994.
ACORN — short for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — began in Little Rock, Ark., in 1970 as the Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now.
Besides its community organizing, housing work and get-out-the-vote activities, over the years ACORN has tackled such varied issues as predatory lending, a California power plant, a telecommunications company merger, immigration fraud, financial literacy, racial discrimination, land use and lead poisoning.
It opposed Wal-Mart’s effort to start a bank and contends that big-box stores often take away more from communities than they give. It joined with former President Bill Clinton’s foundation to make Hurricane Katrina survivors aware of a tax credit for low-income workers.
ACORN in 2006 estimated the monetary value of its successful activism over the previous decade at $15 billion.
Its affiliates include nonprofit radio stations KNON in Dallas and KABF in Little Rock. The stations and ACORN work closely together and have offices in the same buildings, Kettenring said.
Two schools in New York City have partnered with ACORN and bear its name: ACORN Community High School and ACORN High School for Social Justice.
ACORN has long been involved in politics.
In 1984, seven local ACORN groups supported Jesse Jackson for president in state primaries, and four years later the organization had 30 delegates at the Democratic National Convention on his behalf.
In the early days in Little Rock, the local power structure tried to ignore ACORN, a tactic that didn’t work, recalls Little Rock civil rights lawyer John Walker.
“They were very vocal and very active for the years of their infancy,” Walker said. “They were very effective.”
ACORN calls itself the largest grass-roots community organization of low- and moderate-income Americans. It claims over 400,000 families and more than 1,200 neighborhood chapters in about 75 cities.
The group and Obama have long known each other.
Obama helped represent ACORN in a 1995 lawsuit against Illinois that forced enactment of the “motor-voter law,” making it easier to register to vote.
ACORN’s political action committee endorsed Obama for president and his campaign gave an ACORN subsidiary $832,000 for get-out-the-vote activities.
Pro-Democratic groups, including unions, paid ACORN branches and affiliates for get-out-the-vote activities in the last election.