Largely unfounded and often rabid charges that smacked of McCarthyism, led to the demise of one of the nation’s staunchest supporters of community development and fair housing.
Given the banking industry’s continued betrayal of its customer base and persistent collusion with the still largely self-regulated financial industry, we could really use a champion like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), now.
You can bet if ACORN was alive today, it would be dug in at the corporate headquarters of the nation’s largest banks for shoving homeowners over the cliff and then tossing boulders after them to keep them down.
ACORN would have sent troops to Wall Street to face off against financial giants and greedy speculators who made billions feeding on the hopes and American Dreams of homeowners.
Known for results-oriented, boots-on-the ground, in-your-face, confrontational indignation that brought the Ameriquest and Household International subprime predators to their knees — before “subprime” was a household word — ACORN would be in our corner right now.
Phoenix not rising
Instead, the now bankrupt ACORN finds no vindication in the release last week of the U.S. Government Accountability Office report “ACORN: Federal Funding and Monitoring”. Like other studies the GAO report reveals there was little to substantiate the vast majority of charges that drove ACORN into the ground.
ACORN’s admitted infractions and isolated failures were small potatoes compared to surreptitious “Inside Job” infractions conducted by an unbridled financial infrastructure of perpetuators responsible for spawning the worst recession since the Great Depression.
Charges against ACORN, related to voter registration fraud, voting fraud and federal funding violations, among others, began largely after ACORN spearheaded many efforts to register voters for the historic 2008 presidential election which catapulted Barack Obama into the role of the nation’s first African American president.
At the time, the operation was also grappling with an internal $1 million embezzlement case it admittedly handled poorly.
During investigations into these matters, a new scandal surfaced when “hidden camera” videos purportedly revealed ACORN volunteers and employees offering tax advice on a proposed prostitution business.
ACORN blames “Republicans” and “conservative activists” for leading the charge to strip federal funding from what was perhaps the nation’s largest grassroots community organization of low- and moderate-income people, often African-Americans.
At its height, ACORN boasted nearly a half million member families organized into more than 1,200 neighborhood chapters in about 75 cities across the nation. For 40 years, ACORN broke down barriers of discrimination and prejudice..
The controversy, stemming from nearly 50 federal state and local investigations, cost ACORN and its affiliates federal funding (more than $50 million from 2005 through 2009) and cast a shadow over its private fund-raising efforts.
Beating the charges
ACORN was first cleared of wrong doing in 2009, by the Congressional Research Service in an investigation requested by the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Service Committee.
The report “CRS: Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) ” not only exonerated ACORN, but also questioned the constitutionality of the legislation used to withdraw ACORN’s funding. Without due process, legislation that inflicts “attainder,” a type of punishment, could be considered unconstitutional, the report said.
The CRS report also questioned the impunity of those performing “evidence-gathering” dirty-tricks in hidden-camera stings used to bring additional charges.
At about the same time, U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon likewise argued Congress violated the Constitution by illegally targeting the group and attempted to block U.S. officials from enforcing the funding ban.
Months later, in March 2010, she upheld that order saying it was “unmistakable that Congress determined ACORN’s guilt before defunding it.” She also said Congress damaged ACORN’s reputation and its ability to raise funds in the process. Not only were federal funds cut, but major contributors, the Ford and Mott Foundations, cut off funding to ACORN.
The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later disagreed with the Gershon ruling, forcing ACORN to take its federal funding case to the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, by March, 2010, both Brooklyn, NY prosecutors and an independent investigation by the California Attorney General’s Office cleared ACORN of criminal wrong doing over the hidden camera videos, after determining the videos were heavily edited, manipulated and distorted to meet then tricksters’ agenda.
Except for millions of dollars in lost federal funding and ACORN’s demise, little proof of wrong doing has come from the dozens of investigations.
John Atlas’ “Seeds of Change, The Story of ACORN, America’s Most Controversial Anti-Poverty Community Organizing Group” (Vanderbilt University Press, $27.95) documents ACORN’s rise and untimely fall.
The final ironic ACORN chapter is the latest exoneration by the GAO. The report says:
• Of 22 investigations of alleged election and voter registration fraud, most were closed without prosecution.
• One of eight investigations of alleged voter registration fraud resulted in guilty pleas and seven were closed without action due to lack of evidence.
• The Federal Election Commission (FEC) reported five closed matters – one resolved, one dismissed and the others dropped after FEC “found no reason to believe the violations occurred.”
In March, this year, in one of the ACORN website’s final blog entries by outgoing CEO Bertha Lewis “Vindication Doesn’t Pay The Bills”, Lewis writes:
“ACORN has faced a series of well-orchestrated, relentless, well-funded right wing attacks that are unprecedented since the McCarthy era. Our effective work empowering African American and low-income voters made us a target. The videos were a manufactured, sensational story that led to rush to judgment and an unconstitutional act by Congress. For ACORN as a national organization, our vindication on the facts doesn’t necessarily pay the bills. I know that ACORN’s dedicated community members will continue to speak out for justice and organize in their communities.”
We can only hope.
Post mortem: On June 20, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court refused, without comment, to review Acorn v. U.S., the advocacy group’s attempt to revive its lawsuit claiming that Congress had acted unconstitutionally when it denied ACORN federal funds.