Five Questions Surrounding the Current ACORN Scandal

The House has voted 345-75 to suspend federal funding to ACORN, piece by piece. The vote occurred after incriminating videos surfaced showing ACORN employees advising two people on the finer points of sex trafficking. But what's actually going on here?

I know, I know. This is the 10 o'clock shout box where we normally holler and release our frustration about the relative dumbassery of the day. (Or at least, that's what we've been doing lately.) But this situation is murky and we need to establish some clarity first.

So before we resume our regularly scheduled caterwauling, let's take a few moments to explore the major questions that I've heard surrounding the ACORN controversy.

What does ACORN do?

According to their website, ACORN - which stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now - is "the nation's largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, working together for social justice and stronger communities. "

While I generally use Wikipedia cautiously, in this case, they summarized ACORN a bit better than ACORN's actual site:

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is a community-based organization in the USA that advocates for low- and moderate-income families by working on neighborhood safety, voter registration, health care, affordable housing, and other social issues. ACORN has over 400,000 members and more than 1,200 neighborhood chapters in over 100 cities across the United States,[1] as well as in Argentina, Canada, Mexico, and Peru. ACORN was founded in 1970 by Wade Rathke and Gary Delgado.[2] Maude Hurd has been National President of ACORN since 1990.

ACORN's priorities have included: better housing and wages for the poor, more community development investment from banks and governments, better public schools, and other social justice issues.[3] ACORN pursues these goals through demonstration, negotiation, lobbying for legislation, and voter participation.[3] ACORN is a non-profit, nonpartisan organization that typically champions liberal and labor-oriented causes. It is made up of numerous legally distinct parts including local non-profits, a national lobbying organization, and the ACORN Housing Corporation.

ACORN has been the subject of public controversy over embezzlement, management fights, voter registration fraud and other misconduct committed by its workers.

Why did they come up in the 2008 election?

During the course of the elections, a link repeatedly emerged between Barack Obama and ACORN, specifically in reference to voter fraud. According to FighttheSmears.com (Obama's campaign site) he was never a community organizer for ACORN, nor did they help with Project Vote efforts. However, FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan site, notes that while the McCain campaign oversold the charges as "voter fraud," Obama was downplaying his involvement with ACORN:

Here's what is true: In recent years, ACORN employees have been investigated multiple times for voter registration fraud. ACORN workers have been convicted of submitting false voter registration forms in Colorado Springs in 2005, Kansas City, Mo., in 2006 and King County, Wash., in 2007. ACORN's Las Vegas office was raided by a state criminal investigator on Oct. 7, 2008. ACORN workers are also the subjects of ongoing investigations in Wisconsin, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana. The Indiana investigation started in early October and may involve thousands of fraudulent registration forms. [...]

In 1995, Obama helped represent ACORN in a successful lawsuit to require the state of Illinois to offer "motor voter" registration at DMV offices. Obama has said that this is his only association with ACORN, but that's not the case – he has had other, though less direct, interactions with the organization.

When Obama was on the board of directors of the Woods Fund, the foundation gave grants of $75,000 in 2001 and $70,000 in 2002 to ACORN's Chicago office. The McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee cite an additional grant of $45,000 in 2000. The Woods Fund has not responded to our calls about their 2000 grants.

The Obama campaign also paid Citizens Services Inc., a group affiliated with ACORN, more than $800,000 for get-out-the-vote (not voter registration) efforts during the primary election. The nature of CSI's services was initially misrepresented on the Obama campaign's disclosures to the Federal Election Commission, which the campaign describes as an oversight. The Obama campaign says it has not been involved with ACORN during the general election.

In addition, after law school, Obama may have had contact with ACORN when he directed a Chicago registration drive for Project Vote in 1992. According to Sanford Newman, who was the program's national director at the time, ACORN may have been one of dozens of organizations that participated in registration drives that year with Project Vote personnel like Obama. But Project Vote didn't begin contracting exclusively with ACORN until after Obama worked for the group in 1992. "Working for Project Vote at the time was by no means working for ACORN," Newman told us. ACORN had no influence on Project Vote policy and no representation on its board.

In sum, the GOP tried to say that ACORN was guilty of voter fraud and that Obama was a key person in their organization. Obama tried to play down his ties to the organization. ACORN has used problematic tactics, particularly in reference to voter registration that were deemed fraudulent (but that is a different beast than voter fraud) and Obama was not a key leader in the organization (he didn't even work there), but had more ties with ACORN than he was wiling to admit.

What's happening with the current controversy?

ACORN is back in the news after having a series of damning videos posted on BigGovernment.com. James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles went into various ACORN offices posing as a pimp and a prostitute and drilled ACORN with various questions. Most areas were asked about getting a home, about how to verify her Giles' income as a prostitute, and how best to set up a brothel in a home. Some ACORN offices complied. The New York Times notes:

Mr. O'Keefe, 25, a filmmaker and conservative activist, was dressed so outlandishly that he might have been playing in a risqué high school play. But in the footage made public - initially by a new Web site, BigGovernment.com - Acorn employees raised no objections to the criminal plans. Instead, they eagerly counseled the couple on how to hide their activities from the authorities, avoid taxes and make the brothel scheme work.

On one of the videos, an unidentified Acorn employee in Washington, told that the pair were engaging in prostitution, explained how to disguise their activities in dealing with bankers and the government. "You don't put down ‘I'm a prostitute' or ‘I'm a lady of the night, and this is where I'm getting my income,' " the Acorn worker said.

At the Baltimore office, a helpful worker suggested describing the prostitute on a loan application as a "freelance performing artist" and said she and the pimp might want to claim some of the young Salvadoran prostitutes as dependents and collect the child tax credit for them.

ACORN protests this characterization, even putting up a video from one of their staffers (Katherine Conway Russell) who encountered O'Keefe and Giles and called the police after their ruse became suspicious:

Where have we seen James O'Keefe before?

Interestingly enough, James O'Keefe was also behind the 2008 scandal with Planned Parenthood where he posed as a caller trying to donate money to specifically fund abortions for African Americans:

O'Keefe told Cybercast News Service it was his voice on the recording and that the recording has not been doctored. "Nothing was done to change the content," he said. "I think the audio clearly speaks for itself."

O' Keefe explained that part of his motivation for placing the call was to fight the racism he perceives in Planned Parenthood.

"African-Americans today are targeted by the abortion industry and suffer deeply because of it," he said. "Planned Parenthood makes a profit off of their operations. We wanted to reveal their racist past - and the practical racism of their policies today - reflected in their other operations. Planned Parenthood must be held accountable for their actions, both past and present."


What are the mitigating/aggravating factors here?

On the mitigating side, the ACORN employee caught on film says she was "playing" - she felt the stunt was ridiculous, and responded with silly, over the top answers. She notes that at the beginning of the interaction, she asked if the duo were reporters, and they answered no.

In addition, looking at O'Keefe's past history, it's fairly clear he has an agenda in mind, and he will keep calling around/approaching branches of organizations until he gets the type of answer he is looking for.

But, on the aggravating side you have the horrifying reality that someone who is supposedly an advocate for the community would advise anyone on how to conceal (and profit from) sex trafficking. Juan Carlos Vera, one of the ACORN employees who dispensed such advice, was fired. But this is a serious issue. Atlasien quickly penned a piece for Racialicious, saying:

A lot of people on the left don't want to talk about this issue. I get a feeling of closing ranks. After all, ACORN has done many, many good things for low-income communities. They work with people on the margins of society that no one else will work with. It's a difficult balance. Low-income people who work in illegal activities should NOT be cut off and isolated… but activities that savagely victimize other people shouldn't be supported, either. I would never say that drug-dealing and sex work are "victimless" crimes; that would be a stupid statement because there are very few activities that are truly victimless, either legal or illegal. Selling cigarettes is legal, for example, but not victimless.

But I refuse to believe that there is any kind of gray area when it comes to child prostitution. [...]

This is a horrendous problem, and the statistics here show that children of color are the most affected and most victimized. There are many contributing factors and many, many people to blame. The pimps, to start off with. Everyone who enables the pimps, including their friends and relatives and money launderers. The criminal justice system that treats the victims as criminals. Self-righteous prostitute-haters that believe impoverished, abused children should be punished for their "choices" instead of helped… and vote to keep the current system going. Regular bystanders, like me, that don't contribute to the victimization but don't know how to stand against it effectively.

The right-wing anger around the ACORN sting comes from a place of racism more than a place of sympathy. A huge theme in their commentary is that "their tax money" would be hypothetically going to "illegal immigrant prostitutes". But I'm not a right-winger, and I'm angry too, not about my tax money, but about a cultural habit spread through all levels of American society that includes enabling victimizers and rapists.

Please feel free to discuss amongst yourselves - leave any further questions/clarifications in the comments.


House votes to defund ACORN
[AP]
ACORN announces new training, review after 'prostitution' videos [CNN]
Official Site [ACORN]
ACORN [Wikipedia]
Barack Obama Never Organized with ACORN [FighttheSmears.com]
ACORN Accusations [FactCheck.org]
Official Site [BigGovernment.com]
Conservatives Draw Blood From Acorn [NY Times]
ACORN Housing responds to recent allegations [ACORN]
Planned Parenthood Agreed to Accept Race-Motivated Donations [CNS News]
ACORN Employee Says She Thought Couple Was Part of a Stunt [Washington Post]
San Diego ACORN employee fired over video [MSNBC]
ACORN Pimp Sting, Child Prostitution and Accountability [Racialicious]