As far as operations in Maryland go, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, is no more. On Monday the group’s former state co-chairwoman, Sonja Merchant-Jones, announced that the group has shut down all of its offices and in the foreseeable future would not operate under a new name. The announcement is a coda to the wave of bad publicity befalling the parent organization since last September following the airing of videos filmed by a young conservative activist couple, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, pretending to be a pimp and a prostitute. The hidden camera sting, posted on the Web and Fox News Channel, caught ACORN office employees in Baltimore and other U.S. cities giving advice on how to skirt around the law in order to obtain small business loans.
In a sense, the announcement was anticlimactic. The Maryland offices of the New Orleans-based nonprofit anti-poverty network had been inoperative for months. Indeed, the group had not held a board meeting since November. But the closing of the Maryland branch underscores how the name “ACORN” suddenly has become radioactive well beyond conservative and libertarian critics. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, founded 40 years ago, had grown to a $100 million-a-year fiefdom, counting its more than 350 subsidiaries and allied front groups. And with close connections to President Obama (as a lawyer, he’d represented them in court in Illinois some 15 years ago), the group appeared to have no limits to expansion.
Yet the infrastructure already had begun to crumble. ACORN founder-chief organizer Wade Rathke was forced out of his post in June 2008 following revelations that he most likely had covered for the group’s chief financial officer, brother Dale Rathke, who had embezzled nearly $950,000 from organization coffers nearly a decade earlier. The IRS and the State of Louisiana each had placed tax liens against the group or its affiliates. ACORN street activists in several states were convicted for voter registration fraud. Rep. Darrell Issa last July issued a lengthy report pointing to ACORN and affiliated groups as in violation of numerous federal racketeering statutes. The airing of the sting videos proved to be the last straw, triggering a rush to the exit door by the network’s federal benefactors. The Census Bureau, the IRS and FEMA each cancelled agreements with ACORN, while Congress eliminated appropriations to the group for Fiscal Year 2010. The loss of public subsidies is a major reason why the national organization’s budget has dropped from $24 million to $6 million in the current year. The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General, meanwhile, announced in September that it had opened a full investigation of ACORN; its subsequent report revealed five separate grants.
Maryland ACORN began in 1999, part of a major expansion campaign by the national group. By 2006, the chapter had grown to around 6,000 members, mostly in Baltimore. The organization used volunteers and low-paid employees to staff its offices for such activities as tax preparation and mortgage counseling. It also engaged in the sort of street agitprop that earned the national organization a badass reputation many years before. Among other tactics, local members blocked court-ordered property auctions, broke into a padlocked home, rallied against foreclosures, and dumped a worn-out sofa on the steps of Baltimore City Hall to dramatize the need for improved trash collection. But if the group sought to sow the seeds of chaos to affect political change, it also was an organization fraught with chaos on the inside. In 2006 it almost lost its headquarters in Baltimore’s Lower Charles Village to foreclosure due to outstanding liens for unpaid water bills and property taxes. The chapter also lost a $7,000 court judgment to a landlord who rented space to the groups in Hyattsville, Md. And its payment of wages was sporadic, triggering numerous employee (and ex-employee) complaints.
Even without the bad publicity generated by the O’Keefe-Giles videos, then, Maryland ACORN was a dysfunctional organization, likely headed for oblivion. Maryland Republican State Senator Nancy Jacobs, a critic of the group, explains: “They (ACORN) have no credibility left. They can’t help but know that. It’s an election year. No Democrat is going to want to go near them. They’re just bad news. They’ve been killed, politically.” ACORN’s Merchant-Jones echoes this view. “I don’t believe the ACORN brand will ever be the same, nor should it be,” she said. “If you’re in it to serve the need of working families and if you’re not going to do it right, you don’t need to do it at all.” The ACORN name having become radioactive nationwide, other state chapters are re-branding. New York ACORN is now New York Communities for Change, while California ACORN has become Alliance for Californians for Community Empowerment.
All this said, ACORN can’t be counted out. For one thing, its network of allies is too wide and connected to simply dissipate into thin air. For another, name-changing is far from extinction and in fact can enable its activists to operate under less scrutiny. Third, the New York City faction, led by current CEO Bertha Lewis, has eclipsed the Rathke-led New Orleans faction, and is every bit as strong. Fourth, an internal investigation commissioned last fall by Lewis and conducted by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger gave the organization a clean bill of health; ACORN employees, he concluded, while not following proper procedure, had not committed crimes. Fifth, U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon (Eastern District of New York), a Clinton appointee, issued a preliminary injunction in December against the congressional cutoff of ACORN funds on constitutional grounds; she made that injunction permanent last week. And sixth, James O’Keefe – the same James O’Keefe who made headlines in September – has a credibility problem of his own. He was among four persons arrested this January for unlawful entry into the New Orleans offices of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, D-La., an act whose ulterior motive was almost certainly to bug the senator’s phones. ACORN is an organization in retreat, but it’s not about to surrender. Critics can’t afford to surrender their own reputations.