If character is destiny, then the demise of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, was almost inevitable. ACORN, or what’s left of it, yesterday announced that it will officially cease to exist as of next Thursday, April 1. The move wasn’t entirely unexpected. Only a week earlier, the nationwide nonprofit anti-poverty group’s Maryland chapter announced it had closed shop, with no plans to reopen; the New York and California state chapters did likewise shortly before, reopening under new names. The national group is currently considering whether to file for bankruptcy.
A virtual adjunct of the Democratic Party’s hard Left, the 400,000-member nationwide nonprofit anti-poverty network had undergone a severe loss of credibility in the wake of publicized investigations into embezzlement, tax fraud and voter registration fraud by its members. As a result, much of its funding has dried up. The ACORN national board on Sunday closed its remaining affiliates in order to secure assets and pay off debts. Still, there is every reason to believe that the organization will reinvent itself under a new name. To know why, it’s important to realize its unrelenting nature.
Founded 40 years ago in Little Rock, Ark. as a side project of the National Welfare Rights Organization and eventually finding permanent headquarters in New Orleans, ACORN grew into a community organizing colossus, creating about 360 subsidiary and affiliate organizations that included radio stations, labor unions, housing development corporations, and public relations consultants. By the middle of the past decade the group was taking in from all sources about $100 million annually. If its organizational chart seemed incomprehensible, that may have been the point. ACORN appeared at least as adept in hiding its own assets and income as creating them for the communities they sought to assist. From founder-chief organizer Wade Rathke on down, the ACORN network had a habitual blind spot for legality and public accountability. With a taste for extreme guerrilla theater, members in various cities committed acts of vandalism, harassment, intimidation and assault. Over the last decade, the group also had engaged in suspected or documented acts of tax fraud, embezzlement and voter registration fraud. With ACORN, the end justified the means.
By last September, the ACORN brand name already had been badly tarnished. Just two months earlier, Rep. Darrell Issa, Ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, released an extensive report strongly suggesting that ACORN, in structure and behavior, operated as a racketeering enterprise. Investigations by the IRS and the State of Louisiana had resulted in tax liens placed on ACORN or affiliates. ACORN activists in Missouri, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other states pleaded guilty to voter registration fraud. And Wade Rathke resigned under pressure in June 2008 following revelations that he’d covered for his chief financial officer brother, Dale, after the latter embezzled nearly $950,000 from ACORN coffers during 1999-2000.
But what fatally damaged ACORN’s reputation was a pair of merry pranksters, James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles. The young conservative “couple,” posing as a pimp and a prostitute, paid impromptu visits to ACORN offices in Baltimore and several other U.S. cities, hidden camera in hand, in hopes of capturing office employees giving advice on how to skirt the law to obtain government benefits. They succeeded all too well. And biggovernment.com and Fox News Channel aired the proceedings. The ensuing uproar caught the attention of Congress and various federal agencies. In short order, the IRS, FEMA and the Census Bureau cancelled active or planned contracts with the group. Even its close ally in organized labor, the Service Employees International Union, announced before a congressional panel that it had severed its ties to ACORN. Meanwhile, Congress zeroed out funding for ACORN in its Fiscal 2010 appropriations. And though a federal judge in New York later would declare the move unconstitutional (albeit with highly specious reasoning), the damage was done. Would-be funding sources, public or private, knew a radioactive organization when they saw one and bailed out. ACORN management read the tea leaves and decided their run was over.
All that said, ACORN officials have delivered a few parting shots at the group’s critics, an indication they aren’t about to disappear from the scene. At its Monday press conference, spokesman Kevin Whelan stated, “It’s really declining revenue in the face of a series of attacks from partisan operatives and right-wing activists that have taken away our ability to raise the resources we need.” In a similar vein, ACORN chief executive officer Bertha Lewis (see photo) issued this statement over the weekend: “ACORN has faced a series of well-orchestrated, relentless, well-funded right-wing attacks that are unprecedented since the McCarthy era. The videos were a manufactured, sensational story that led to a rush to judgment and an unconstitutional act by Congress.” These sound like the words of people digging in for a fight, not shying away from one. ACORN was founded as a radical pressure group, and they intend to keep up the pressure, if under different guises. Public accountability organizations, most of all NLPC, intend to keep up the pressure as well.