Smashing ACORN

You haven't seen Carrie Guzman on the television shows hosted by archconservatives Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck. Her name hasn't appeared on the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal. And she hasn't shown up in any surreptitiously videotaped sting operations conducted by youthful right-wing zealots. 

In fact, Guzman represents a face of the group ACORN that has been largely absent from the media in general since various factions of the right wing set out to discredit and cripple the anti-poverty organization.

At least, she used to be a part of Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. As head of the Lansing, Mich., office, she worked out of a small office in that city for four years, putting in long hours while making just $30,000 a year. Given that Guzman holds a Ph.D. in community development, the pay is exceptionally meager. But she loved the job nonetheless, seeing it as a way to continue providing a public service after retiring from Michigan State University, where she previously served as director of the undergraduate social work program.

But late last year, after the federal government illegally cut off funding to the nonprofit and threatened to do the same to any other entity affiliated or even associated with the group, ACORN in Michigan shut down all operations.

For two months early in 2009, Guzman went without a paycheck, but she kept plugging away, helping people get their income tax returns properly filed and continuing to lead organizing efforts.

By September, when a pair of young conservative activists released secretly recorded videotapes purportedly showing ACORN employees in a handful of cities giving helpful advice to them as they posed as a pimp and prostitute looking for assistance on things like opening a brothel or illegally funneling money into a fictitious political campaign, all hell broke loose. (Prosecutors in New York cleared ACORN of all criminal wrongdoing March 1 after a four-month investigation.)

The furor caused by the videos led Congress to pass legislation cutting off funds to ACORN in a matter of weeks. Even more devastating than the shutoff of federal money – which never formed a large part of ACORN's support – was language in the legislation that also opened up the possibility that any group affiliated or even allied with ACORN could also lose federal funding. That legislation, along with the torrent of negative publicity generated by the video sting, had additional repercussions: Foundation supporters and corporate partners – such as banks that helped fund foreclosure prevention programs – started separating themselves from the organization.

"That was the last straw," says Guzman. "We just couldn't keep going after that."

That and the threatening phone calls that caused her to fear for the safety of her staff.

Michigan isn't the only place where ACORN has suffered. Kevin Whelan, ACORN's deputy national director, says that most state operations have either closed entirely or undergone drastic cuts. Of the nearly 400 people employed by the organization nationally just a year ago, fewer than half remain on the payroll, he says.

Orlando's ACORN office, which opened in 2003 and by 2009 was considered the state headquarters for the organization, closed its doors in December, according to former head organizer Stephanie Porta, eliminating a staff that was already diminished from 14 to six last October. This, despite the fact that the agency reported a monetary impact of $2.8 billion for Florida's low-income residents through programs that increased wages, countered predatory lending practices, offered tax return assistance and took on utility companies. 

"The issues are still there," Porta says. "Our communities are in worse shape than they have been for 50 years. We just couldn't keep on doing the work as ACORN." 

Plans are in the works to establish smaller independent groups rallying community organizers not just from the state's shuttered ACORN offices, but from the activist community at large. 

"It's kind of liberating, and exciting, too," says Porta.

That transitional excitement has carried over into larger markets as well. On Feb. 22, suspicions that ACORN had folded outright were fueled by the announcement of a new Brooklyn group, NY Communities for Change, doing business out of that city's former ACORN address. (The organization immediately responded with support for the group, but continued to insist that ACORN would remain a national force.) In Massachusetts, there is now New England United for Justice. In California, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment splintered away from the ACORN label in January. 

The recent decision by California ACORN to break away from the national group to create a new nonprofit organization could portend even more trouble ahead. As the Los Angeles Times reported when the split occurred in January, the separation from its "embattled parent organization" is a "move that observers say might foreshadow other defections that would seriously undermine one of the nation's largest and most politically powerful community organizations."

There is no doubt that conservative efforts to weaken ACORN, beginning at least as far back as 2004, when the group's voter registration efforts sent a chill through the Bush White House, have crippled the organization.

Along with an assault masterminded from the White House by Karl Rove was a second attack from corporate interests that tried to keep their fingerprints off hatchet jobs by using an industry-funded "astroturf" group. 

An early effort in that campaign, according to the group SourceWatch, "involved the appearance of a website called, created by the Employment Policies Institute (EPI), a front group created by Washington, D.C.-based astroturf specialist Richard Berman and his lobbying firm Berman & Company." The website says ACORN is "really a multimillion-dollar, multinational conglomerate," and "its political agenda is driven by a relative handful of political thugs for hire."

In an Oct. 29, 2008, article, the investigative journalism group ProPublica revealed that both a full-page ad in The New York Times attacking ACORN and the website are "funded by Rick Berman's Employment Policies Institute, which has among its clients the American Beverage Institute, a trade group for bars and restaurants."

As if battling the Republican Party and well-funded corporate hit squads weren't enough, ACORN has been brought low, at least in part, because the mainstream press failed to do its job.

And then, heaping insult upon injury, ACORN was abandoned by many of the Democratic politicians that benefited from the group's efforts, including a one-time community organizer named Barack Obama. The question being raised now is whether it will be able to continue to exist at all.

But not all of ACORN's problems can be laid at the feet of others.

Self-inflicted wounds

The seeds of current-day ACORN were planted in 1970, when the National Welfare Rights Organization sent a talented organizer named Wade Rathke to Little Rock, Ark.

As noted on ACORN's website, Rathke's first campaign was aimed at helping welfare recipients attain basic needs, such as clothing and furniture. This drive began the effort to create and sustain a movement that would grow to become the Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now – the original ACORN.

The fledgling group's ambitious goal was to "unite welfare recipients with needy working people around issues of free school lunches, unemployment issues, Vietnam veterans' rights and emergency room care."

It became a multi-state organization in 1975, launching branches in Texas and South Dakota, keeping the original acronym but changing its name to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. It spread to more than 40 states and gained hundreds of thousands of members.

From the outset, says Guzman, the former Michigan ACORN employee, the group was controversial.

"ACORN has never been afraid to directly confront people with rallies and demonstrations, or going to the homes of corporate executives to stage protests, things like that," she says. "But a lot of times, that kind of edginess is necessary to draw attention to an issue."

With the bulk of its members existing on the margins of society, she explains, it was important to prove to them that they had the power to make change happen. People who never had access to the corridors of power learned that there is power in numbers, power in knowledge.

ACORN grew to become what Peter Dreier and John Atlas, in a piece penned for the Huffington Post blog site, described as "the nation's most successful community organizing group … making headlines by mobilizing low-income Americans to fight for social justice, challenging powerful banks, corporations and government officials around such issues as [increased] wages for the working poor, predatory lending and foreclosures, welfare reform, public education, affordable housing and voting rights."

Dreier teaches politics and directs the Urban & Environmental Policy program at Occidental College in California. Atlas, founder and president of the New Jersey-based National Housing Institute, has written a soon-to-be published book about the history of ACORN.

Both men have regularly risen to the defense of the organization as it sustained a series of attacks in recent years. But even admirers of the group were taken aback in July 2008, when it was disclosed that ACORN founder Wade Rathke's brother, Dale, had embezzled nearly $1 million from the organization eight years earlier. Although an agreement to recoup the money was signed and payments were made, police were never notified and most of ACORN's board was never informed of the crime. Both brothers remained with the organization until whistle-blowers disclosed the scandal.

"We thought it best at the time to protect the organization, as well as to get the funds back into the organization, to deal with it in-house," Maude Hurd, then president of ACORN, told The New York Times. "It was a judgment call at the time, and, looking back, people can agree or disagree with it, but we did what we thought was right."

Over the years, ACORN had made powerful enemies, and they pounced on what Dreier and Atlas described as a "tragic example of poor judgment." The group's detractors, not surprisingly, went for the jugular.

While the right wing gleefully slobbered over the whiff of blood, the group's supporters responded like they were gut-punched.

"Staff," says Guzman, "felt very angry and betrayed."

Pimped out

During the summer of 2009, 20-something conservative activists James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles visited at least eight ACORN offices in five different cities. Giles pretended to be a prostitute. O'Keefe either posed as a pimp or claimed to be Giles' protector. Various illegal schemes were proposed. According to news reports, two ACORN staffers were fired for their seeming willingness to assist the two activists in their feigned plans to break the law. 

After the videotaped sting in September, ACORN commissioned former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger to conduct an inquiry into both the incident and the effectiveness of reforms instituted following disclosure of the embezzlement.

One of the things Harshbarger concluded in a report released in December 2009 was that the "serious management challenges" facing the organization are the "fault of ACORN's founder and a cadre of leaders who, in their drive for growth, failed to commit the organization to the basic, appropriate standards of governance and accountability. As a result, ACORN not only fell short of living its principles but also left itself vulnerable to public embarrassment.

"The hidden camera controversy is an apt example. While some of the advice and counsel given by ACORN employees and volunteers was clearly inappropriate and unprofessional, we did not find a pattern of intentional, illegal conduct by ACORN staff; in fact, there is no evidence that action, illegal or otherwise, was taken by any ACORN employee on behalf of the videographers. Instead, the videos represent the byproduct of ACORN's longstanding management weaknesses, including lack of training, lack of procedures and lack of on-site supervision."

On the other hand, the video sting revealed more than shortcomings on the part of ACORN. According to Dreier, coverage of the incident created a controversy far out of proportion to its actual news value while also failing to reveal the true context of what really happened.

While Fox News broadcast the videos "on a virtual round-the clock basis," Dreier wrote, and the right-wing blogosphere served as an echo chamber that amplified and spread the allegations, mainstream media acted more like "stenographers" than reporters, failing to reveal crucial facts about the so-called "sting."

While the heavily edited tapes make it appear as if conservative activist James O'Keefe dressed as a ridiculously flamboyant pimp when taping ACORN employees, he in reality presented himself as merely a friend to pretend hooker Giles (who in some cases claimed to be seeking help setting up a brothel). It was only outside that he donned the laughably outrageous costume that included a faux-fur coat and oversized shades. In an act of bold-faced deception, he then spliced the footage "to make it appear" that he'd actually worn the costume in meetings with ACORN staff.

Most of the mainstream media continued to miss that fact in recounting the video escapade while reporting on the arrest of O'Keefe and three other men in January, when they were charged with plotting to tamper with the phones at the New Orleans office of Democratic Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu.

Missing the real story is part of a pattern when it comes to mainstream coverage of ACORN, Dreier says.

Last September, Dreier and University of Northern Iowa journalism professor Christopher Martin released a report titled "Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why ACORN Was in the News, and What the News Got Wrong." 

The study looks at mainstream media coverage of ACORN during 2007 and 2008, in advance of the presidential election. According to the study, groundwork for the attack was laid as early as July 2006, when EPI released a report titled "Rotten ACORN: America's Bad Seed." The report made reference to ACORN's "questionable activities" and referenced investigations into allegations of "election fraud" by the group but, Dreier and Martin's study notes, failed to produce any evidence of convictions against ACORN. 

And while it's true ACORN workers in a number of states were accused of placing false names on voter registration cards, there hasn't been one recorded instance of any attempts by anyone linked to ACORN to actually try to cast a fraudulent ballot. That fact is confirmed by both the Harshbarger report and a report compiled by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The problem from the GOP's perspective is that the poor, young and minority people ACORN largely attempts to register tend to vote Democratic. Concentrating on crucial swing states, ACORN was able to register hundreds of thousands of new voters during the 2006 and 2008 election cycles.

That was another story the mainstream media missed almost completely. Dreier reports that "98.5 percent of the stories about ACORN's alleged involvement in voter fraud failed to provide deeper context, especially efforts by Republican Party officials to use allegations of ‘voter fraud' to dampen voting by low-income and minority Americans, including the firing of U.S. attorneys who refused to cooperate with the politicization of voter fraud accusations – firings that ultimately led to the resignation of U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales."

In October 2008, according to published reports, the Department of Justice's Inspector General found that U.S. Attorney David Iglesias had been improperly fired because he had refused to pursue prosecutions against the ACORN and a prominent New Mexico Democrat before the 2006 mid-term elections.

In Aug. 2009, as Dreier and Martin also point out, the House Judiciary Committee "released over 5,000 pages of White House and Republican National Committee e-mails, along with transcripts of closed-door testimony by Karl Rove, former Bush senior advisor and deputy chief of staff, and Harriet Miers, former White House counsel. The documents revealed that Rove played a central role in the firing of David Iglesias, the U.S. Attorney in New Mexico, for failing to help Republican election prospects by prosecuting alleged instances of voter fraud by ACORN."

Nearly every major news organization reported on the release of the documents, the professors report, "... but none of them – including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal – mentioned that Rove was specifically focused on attacking ACORN for its voter registration efforts in New Mexico and other states, even though ACORN is mentioned frequently as a Republican target in investigative documents."

The attempts to demonize ACORN reached a crescendo in October 2008, when Republican candidate John McCain, in a debate with Obama (whom the right was attempting to link with ACORN) claimed, "We need to know the full extent of Sen. Obama's relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."

It all begins to take on a sort of Alice in Wonderland quality. Having the White House direct a campaign of intimidation and prosecution against a group dedicated to helping poor people isn't worth mentioning. But the fact that some misguided temporary workers wrote down the names of cartoon characters such as Mickey Mouse on registration cards raises dire concerns that democracy itself is being threatened.

A Constitutional question

Within weeks of the pimp-and-prostitute video exploding on the scene, the so-called Defund Acorn Act of 2009 passed through Congress – with only 75 House Democrats and seven Senate Democrats opposing it – and on Oct. 1 President Obama signed it into law. It was done despite warnings from the Congressional Research Service that in all likelihood the law would be judged unconstitutional if challenged.

The CRS indicated that language in the bill – specifically the portion that reads, "None of the funds made available by this joint resolution or any prior Act may be provided to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) or any of its affiliates, subsidiaries, or allied organizations" – violated a clause in the U.S. Constitution that prohibits what is known as a bill of attainder. In laymen's terms, that means the government can't single out an individual or group for punishment without a trial. 

ACORN, turning to the Center for Constitutional Rights for legal help, went to court in an attempt to have the law overturned. In early December, Nina Gershon, a federal judge in Brooklyn, N.Y., ruled in favor of ACORN, saying the legislation indeed violated the group's constitutional rights.

But despite the judge's ruling, federal funding to the group remains shut off, and the Obama Justice Department is fighting to keep it that way on two fronts. On the one hand, it is arguing that Gershon's ruling no longer applies because the language from the original bill has been inserted into a subsequent piece of legislation that Obama signed. At the same time, it is seeking to have Gershon reconsider her ruling.

Lawyers for the group are attempting to expedite the judicial process, but they're fighting a Justice Department that is slowing things down.

The effect, says Atlas, is a "disaster for poor people."

"This is clearly a cautionary tale about what the right-wing echo chamber is capable of doing to any progressive group in America that begins to threaten the power structure."

But it's not just the Fox talkers who amplify their rants. It is the GOP and the corporate right as well. It's also a mainstream press that fails to do its job. And then there are the Democrats who count on the votes of poor people and people of color to get elected, as well as ACORN's supposed allies on the left.

"Both Democrats and the progressive community were largely silent during all this," says Atlas. "They just ran for the hills."

Dreier says the left is already suffering as a result. With ACORN effectively neutered for at least the time being, a crucial ally isn't able to effectively help rally the communities it serves to turn up the volume in support of the administration's attempts to reform health care and banking laws.

"There's real consequences of this that extend far beyond ACORN," Dreier says.

Guzman is the first to acknowledge that ACORN – like any large organization – had its share of problems. But the benefit gained from helping give marginalized communities a voice and sense of real power far outweighed any shortcomings.

"Now," she says, "the ACORN brand has certainly been damaged. How irreparably, I don't know. But it's certainly been damaged. And it's left a huge void. Right now, I don't see anyone else stepping up to take the lead."

In some ways, she says, it all seems so crazy. All these attacks on a group that has helping poor people and the disenfranchised as its goal. What, she asks, is there to be so afraid of? But she knows the answer to her own question.

"We did make political change. We did make economic change. And some people just didn't want to see that. I think that is the real reason we ran into so much trouble."

Additional reporting by Billy Manes. 

A version of this story appeared in Detroit's Metro Times.

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