- Was the largest radical group in America, with more than 400,000 dues-paying member families and more than 1,200 chapters in 110 U.S. cities as of 2008
- Was widely implicated in voter-registration fraud, vote-rigging, voter intimidation, and vote-for-pay scams
- Pressured banks to lend money to underqualified minority borrowers
- Maintained close ties to organized labor
- Opposed capitalism
- Favored a government monopoly in healthcare
- Advocated an open-door immigration policy
- Disbanded as a national entity in 2010, but continued thereafter, in the form of state-level groups bearing a variety of different names, to pursue its radical agendas
ACORN’s Origins and Agendas:
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) was a grassroots political organization that grew out of George Wiley‘s National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), whose members in the late 1960s and early 1970s invaded welfare offices across the U.S. — often violently — bullying social workers and loudly demanding every penny to which the law “entitled” them. In the late sixties, ACORN co-founder Wade Rathke was an NWRO organizer and a protegé of Wiley. Rathke also organized a draft-resistance campaign for the militant group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during the same period.
In 1970 Rathke — along with the aforementioned Wiley (who was best known for his effective use of the so-called Cloward-Piven Strategy) and Gary Delgado (a lead organizer for Wiley’s NWRO) — formed a new entity called Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The group’s name was later changed to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, but the acronym ACORN remained. Instead of focusing only on welfare recipients, ACORN’s mandate now included all issues touching low-income and working-class people. In November 2008, Matthew Vadum of the Capital Research Center gave an overview of those issues:
“ACORN … organizes crude protests against businesspeople and public officials. Opposed to the profit motive and capitalism in general, it pushes for more government control over citizens and the economy. ACORN supports gun control, a government monopoly in healthcare and an open door immigration policy. It supports a big raise in the federal minimum wage and so-called ‘living-wage’ laws enacted by states and cities. ACORN wants more funding for urban public schools, and wants federal and state laws enacted guaranteeing paid sick leave for all full-time workers. The group claims to fight for affordable housing and it rails against foreclosures and so-called ‘predatory’ lending, even though it demands that banks make loans [to underqualified borrowers] destined to default.”
As noted above, housing activism was a major priority for ACORN, which formed housing collectives in a host of targeted areas. These collectives pressured local authorities to place them (the collectives) in charge of renovating and managing abandoned or dilapidated properties for poor tenants. In turn, the local authorities provided money for renovation — much of which ended up in ACORN bank accounts. The tenants were compelled to “earn” their new homes by investing “sweat equity”; i.e., working without pay on renovating the properties. ACORN or its designated “housing collective” retained title to the land on which these buildings stood. If the tenants decided to move out, they were required to give their property back to ACORN, at cost, no matter what the market value of the property.
Another of ACORN’s chief objectives was to enact “living wage” ordinances at the local, state and federal levels. It succeeded in getting many such laws passed. ACORN’s model legislation contained a clause that exempted unionized businesses from having to pay the minimum wage. As a result, companies that stubbornly resisted unionizing, struggled and, in many cases, went bankrupt. By contrast, those that unionized, thrived, thereby providing an ever-expanding membership base for union recruiting.
ACORN’s desire to pay its own workers less than the minimum wage was discussed by Carl Horowitz of the National Legal and Policy Center:
“ACORN doesn’t even like paying the minimum wage, let alone a ‘living’ one set several dollars an hour higher. In 1995, ACORN’s California chapter went to court seeking an exemption from having to pay its workers the state minimum, at the time $4.25 an hour. The group lost. In its unsuccessful appeal, ACORN argued that being forced to pay its workers the minimum wage would violate its First Amendment rights. The presiding judge termed the argument ‘absurd.’ Welcome to the real world of employment.”
The Capital Research Center (CRC) provided yet another look at ACORN’s payroll and employment practices:
“A 2003 study of ACORN by the Employment Policies Institute found the group paid a wage of $5.67 per hour, which was ‘less than half the level demanded by many proposed living-wage ordinances that ACORN supports.’ Although it demands all workers be allowed to organize unions, ACORN doesn’t like it when its own workers try to organize. It has tried to block its own employees from signing up with unions, and in 2003 the National Labor Relations Board determined it had unlawfully blocked its workers from organizing.”
Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern wrote in 2003 that ACORN, professing its dedication to “the poor and powerless,” in fact “promotes a 1960s-bred agenda of anti-capitalism, central planning, victimology, and government handouts to the poor.” ACORN, Stern elaborated, organized people “to push for ever more government control of the economy” and to pursue “the ultra-Left’s familiar anti-capitalist redistributionism.” This agenda was likewise made plain in ACORN’s People’s Platform, which stated: “We are the majority, forged from all the minorities. We will continue our fight … until we have shared the wealth…” In 2010, former ACORN insider Anita MonCrief confirmed the organization’s unmistakably socialist leanings:
“As an ACORN insider my indoctrination as a socialist was a slow but steady progression from radical liberalism to embracing the stealth socialist methods that had made ACORN a powerful force in American electoral politics…. Inside ACORN offices across the country, young, idealistic liberals were being ingrained with the Saul Alinsky style of Organizing. Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals was never mentioned by name, but Alinsky’s tactics were used on employees and ACORN members. ACORN’s strategy of stealth socialism was aimed at gaining power through duplicity and somewhat assimilating into society…. I once asked Marcel Reid, former ACORN national board member and President of DC ACORN, how it was possible for ACORN to push its agenda and she replied ‘We never use the word Socialism.’ ACORN’s appeal was to simply implement a Socialist agenda without ever saying the word.”
In the early 1970s, Wade Rathke and his ACORN co-founders enlisted civil-rights workers and trained them in a program (at Syracuse University) patterned after Saul Alinsky‘s activist tactics. Often those tactics were subtle, featuring the quiet infiltration of political, educational, and financial infrastructures by ACORN members. In other cases, the methods were brazenly confrontational, as Carl Horowitz of the National Legal and Policy Center notes:
“In July 1997 … roughly 200 ACORN protestors stormed a session of the Chicago City Council (which was discussing “living wage” issues at that time), pushing over the metal detector and table used to screen visitors, backing police against doors, and blocking entrance to the room by late-arriving alderman and staff; six persons were arrested in the fracas.”
Other instances of ACORN’s aggressive tactics include the following:
- In 1991, a busload of ACORN activists from Baltimore and Philadelphia jumped the queue and took the seats that lobbyists had reserved at a congressional committee hearing.
- In 1992, 80 ACORN activists occupied a Crossland Savings Bank branch in Brooklyn, New York to demand that a vacant apartment building be turned into housing for low-income families.
- In 1995, ACORN condemned what it falsely characterized as the Republican-led Congress’ proposed “spending cuts” on welfare programs. (In actuality, the Republicans were calling for an increase in welfare spending, but a smaller increase than ACORN wanted.) One day, when Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich was scheduled to address a meeting of county commissioners at the Washington Hilton, some 500 ACORN protesters stormed the ballroom, shouting epithets via bullhorns, taunting the assembled county commissioners, and ultimately causing Gingrich to cancel his speech.
- In 1995, when a congressional panel began considering reforms to the Community Reinvestment Act, or CRA (which pressured banks to approve loans to borrowers who, by traditional standards, were undercapitalized), ACORN’s national president Maude Hurd led a group of activists in disrupting one of the panel’s hearings by chanting, “CRA has got to stay!” and “Banks for greed, not for need!”
- In 2001, ACORN protesters assembled outside the home of the chairman of San Diego Gas & Electric and shouted derogatory comments about him. They also distributed fliers with a picture of the chairman below the word “WANTED,” and banged on the windows and front door of his home.
- In 2002, ACORN dispatched four busloads of protesters to the site of Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley’s home, where they screamed profanities at the mayor and his family. Additional ACORN members, meanwhile, piled mounds of garbage in front of Baltimore’s City Hall to protest the alleged paucity of services in the area’s poor neighborhoods.
- In 2004, an ACORN protester, enraged by a Republican challenge to possibly fraudulent voter-registrations which ACORN had secured, forced his way inside the GOP headquarters in Cuyahoga County, Ohio and allegedly assaulted two female volunteers.
- In June 2009, an angry mob of at least 150 ACORN protesters nearly knocked New York Republican state senator James Alesi to the floor, and they spat in the face of his chief of staff. The protesters were reportedly upset that two Democratic senators had decided to caucus with Republicans, a move that would give Republicans control of that body.
ACORN’s public actions were not always self-directed; frequently the organization made its foot soldiers available for rent-a-mob operations. For example, left-wing funders Herb and Marion Sandler, the founders of World Savings Bank, gave ACORN affiliates close to $11 million to manufacture mobs to protest against their competitors in subprime mortgage lending. Similarly, the United Federation of Teachers paid ACORN $500,000 to create a spontaneous uprising against charter schools in Manhattan.
In 1998 in New York, ACORN founded the Working Families Party (WFP). When WFP endorsed Hillary Clinton in her 2000 U.S. Senate race, canvassers from ACORN and its sister groups launched a statewide voter-mobilization drive that proved influential in Mrs. Clinton’s victory. In November 2001, a coalition of radical politicians led by ACORN-sponsored candidates running on the WFP ticket won a veto-proof majority on the New York City Council, giving ACORN de facto control of the New York City government.
ACORN’s platform in New York called for a rollback of welfare reforms; a crackdown on NYC police, including a ban on “racial and ethnic profiling”; and the appointment of a politicized Civilian Review Board empowered to prosecute police officers. ACORN also sought to use its influence to raise corporate taxes, increase regulation, and empower unions with an array of new rights. Moreover, ACORN aimed to prevent any corporation from being free to leave New York without first obtaining an “exit visa” from the City Council.
Throughout its history, ACORN generated immense revenues from its “community organizing” campaigns and showed little tolerance for rival leftist groups infringing on its turf. For instance, when ACORN set up shop in San Francisco in May 2002, it discovered that many of its potential recruits — low-income blacks and Hispanics — were already networked with the Outer Mission Resident’s Association (OMRA). The San Francisco Examiner reported: “ACORN soon began a process of intimidation by busing in activists from Oakland to disrupt OMRA events. ACORN members then began showing up at some neighbors’ homes, and in one case jabbed a person in the chest.”
Since ACORN was a private corporation, it did not divulge information about its finances. Complicating any effort to calculate ACORN’s income was the fact that the organization operated an enormous number of front groups, many of which concealed their relationship to ACORN. As of October 2008, there were at least 294 front groups, nonprofits, and businesses related to ACORN, the vast majority of which listed their headquarters as: 1024 Elysian Fields Avenue in New Orleans, Louisiana — the site of a then-defunct funeral home.
But we can gain some idea of ACORN’s revenues (as of 2008) by multiplying the organization’s 400,000+ member families by the $120 annual membership fee, which yields a total of approximately $48 million. According to ACORN’s website at the time, “Membership dues and a host of grassroots and chapter-based fundraising programs pay for 70 to 75 percent of the entire organization’s budget.” If that was indeed the case, ACORN’s annual intake was at least $64 million. Some of those revenues came in the form of taxpayer dollars furnished by the federal government: Between 1994 and 2008, ACORN received a total of $53 million in federal funds earmarked for so-called “community organizations.”
In a November 2008 exposé about ACORN, investigative journalist Matthew Vadum observed that although the organization had soaked up many millions of taxpayer dollars while agitating for ever-higher tax rates on American workers, it had failed to address its own tax obligations:
“Ironically, ACORN and its affiliates, all reliable cheerleaders for higher taxes, are longtime tax deadbeats. A search of public records found more than 200 federal, state, and local tax liens adding up to more than $3.7 million that are associated with groups that share ACORN’s address on Elysian Fields Avenue in New Orleans…. It is unclear what kinds of taxes ACORN and its affiliates failed to pay, but because almost all ACORN affiliates are exempted from paying most or all taxes, it seems likely that the liens were issued for non-payment of employees’ payroll taxes. If so, this would be ironic because payroll taxes fund the social and wealth-distribution programs that ACORN so staunchly supports.”
In addition to membership fees and government grants, ACORN (and its related ACORN Institute) also received large donations from a number of charitable foundations, including but not limited to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Arca Foundation, the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, the Barbra Streisand Foundation, the Beldon Fund, the Ben and Jerry’s Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Citigroup Foundation, the Democracy Alliance, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Trust, the Haymarket People’s Fund, the JEHT Foundation, the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, the Lear Family Foundation, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the Minneapolis Foundation, the Needmor Fund, the Open Society Institute, the PNC Foundation, the Provident Bank Foundation, the Public Welfare Foundation, the Robin Hood Foundation, the Roseanne [Barr] Foundation, the Scherman Foundation, the Starbucks Foundation, the Surdna Foundation, the Tides Foundation, the Union Bank of California Foundation, the US Bancorp Foundation, the Wachovia Foundation, and the Woods Fund of Chicago.
Meanwhile, ACORN’s American Institute for Social Justice, Inc. received at least $29,940,576 in foundation grants from 2000-2008. Among the donors were the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Trust, the Marguerite Casey Foundation, the McKay Foundation, the Needmor Fund, the Open Society Institute, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, the Wachovia Foundation, the Walter and Elise Haas Fund, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Woods Fund of Chicago.
ACORN’s voter-mobilization arm, Project Vote, took in more than $12 million in foundation grants from 1999-2008. Project Vote donors included the Barbra Streisand Foundation, the Bauman Family Foundation, the Beldon Fund, the Ben & Jerry’s Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the HKH Foundation, the Omidyar Network Fund, the Open Society Institute, the Rockefeller Family Fund, the Stephen M. Silberstein Foundation, the Tides Foundation, and the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program.
ACORN also received much backing from labor unions. Between 2005 and 2008, for instance, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) contributed $7.4 million to ACORN’s national organization, state chapters, and allied groups. SEIU’s single largest donation of $1.5 million went to the ACORN Community Labor Organizing Center in 2006; the union also made a $1.3 million donation to ACORN International in 2005. Other leading contributors to ACORN in its later years were such unions as the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Longshore and Warehouse Union, the Communications Workers of America, and the National Education Association.
ACORN’s close ties to big unions were noted further by the Capital Research Center’s Matthew Vadum and Jeremy Lott in 2008:
“Organized labor is both a client and ally of ACORN. ACORN (including its affiliates) took in almost $3 million [in 2007] from unions to assist their anti-corporate campaigns, provide strike support, and help with research and staffing, among other things…. ACORN and union interests are tightly intertwined. ACORN founder and deposed former president Wade Rathkecontinues to serve as chief organizer of the New Orleans local of the Service Employees International Union. And as unions spend hundreds of millions of dollars this year to get out the vote for a more pro-union Congress and White House, they are counting on the officially nonpartisan ACORN to work feverishly to register pro-union voters and get them to the polls.”
This effort to persuade union members to vote in political elections dovetailed with another of ACORN’s top priorities: to register as many new voters as possible.
ACORN and Voter-Registration Fraud:
ACORN claimed that its voter-registration drives leading up to the 2004 and 2006 elections resulted in the registration of more than 1.68 million people. Subsequently, at a March 2008 “Take Back America” conference sponsored by the Campaign for America’s Future (CAF), ACORN joined CAF and five additional leftist organizations in announcing plans for “the most expensive [$350 million get-out-the-vote] mobilization in history this election season.” Other members of the coalition included the AFL-CIO, the National Council of La Raza, MoveOn.org (MO), Rock the Vote, and the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund. During the 2008 election cycle, ACORN claimed to have registered 1.3 million new voters in 26 states across the United States. But ACORN later acknowledged that this figure was a wild exaggeration; the actual number was approximately 450,000.
That still-impressive number, however, was tarnished by the fact that ACORN and its affiliates (most notably Project Vote) engaged in massive campaigns of voter-registration fraud. Untold numbers of the registration forms that ACORN submitted to election boards across the United States were invalid. The organization’s get-out-the-vote activists were implicated in schemes involving the falsification and destruction of registration forms, the forging of signatures, the registration of dead or non-existent people, the registration of the same individuals multiple times, and the registration of convicted felons even in states where felons were ineligible to vote.
In 2008, election officials in several states said that fully half of ACORN voter registrations were fraudulent. As of October of that year, ACORN was under investigation for voter-registration fraud in 13 states — Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, New Mexico, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Some of ACORN’s more notable election-related transgressions included the following:
- In 2003, ACORN submitted 5,379 voter-registration cards to St. Louis, Missouri election-board officials, who later determined that only 2,013 of the cards appeared to be valid.
- In 2004, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesman said that ACORN had been “singled out” among suspected voter-registration groups as “the common thread” in the agency’s statewide fraud investigations. Mark Wilson, vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said that efforts to register felons and to submit fraudulent voter-registration forms were “so widespread” that “[i]t just seems to be a systemic approach to take advantage of our lax registration laws.”
- In 2004, New Mexico state representative Joe Thompson accused ACORN of “manufacturing voters” throughout his state. The following year, ACORN employees forged thousands of signatures in a campaign to put a wage initiative on the ballot in Albuquerque.
- In 2004, ACORN and its affiliate, Project Vote, submitted a large number of voter-registration cards to the election board in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. These cards had a 15-percent error rate (i.e., mistaken names, addresses, birth dates, etc.) — higher than the corresponding rate among cards filed by any other group.
- In 2004, the Franklin County, Ohio board of election supervisors said that ACORN and Project Vote had submitted hundreds of “blatantly false” forms.
- According to the Wall Street Journal: “During a congressional hearing in Ohio in the aftermath of the 2004 election, officials from several counties in the state explained ACORN’s practice of dumping thousands of registration forms in their lap on the submission deadline, even though the forms had been collected months earlier.” Reflecting on that practice, Thor Hearne of the American Center for Voting Rights remarked, “You have to wonder what’s the point of that, if not to overwhelm the system and get phony registrations on the voter rolls.”
- In 2004, ACORN filed hundreds of suspicious voter-registration forms in at least four Denver, Colorado metro-area counties.
- In 2006, approximately 20,000 questionable voter-registration forms were turned in by ACORN officials in Missouri — virtually all in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas, where ACORN professed a commitment to empowering the “disenfranchised” minorities living there.
- In Seattle, Washington in 2007, ACORN workers filled out 1,805 registration forms with phony names, addresses, and Social Security numbers. Of the 1,805 applications, only 9 were confirmed to be valid. Washington secretary of state Sam Reed called it the “worst case of voter-registration fraud in the history” of the state.
- Also in 2007, seven ACORN workers in Washington state were indicted for having submitted nearly 3,400 fraudulent forms in King and Pierce Counties. Three of the suspects eventually pled guilty and ACORN was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine.
- Between March 23 and October 1, 2008, ACORN and other get-out-the-vote groups submitted at least 252,595 registrations to the Philadelphia County Election Board; of those, 57,435 were rejected for faulty information. Most of the fraudulent forms — which featured fake social security numbers, incorrect birthdates, forged or duplicate signatures, and non-existent addresses — were submitted by ACORN.
- In October 2008, Philadelphia’s city commissioners voted unanimously to present to the U.S. Attorney some 50,663 fraudulent voter-registration forms submitted by ACORN. These included 35,888 duplicates; 689 that were filled out by people too young to vote; 2,108 with missing signatures; 5,093 with phony addresses; and 6,161 not eligible because they were missing a valid HAVA (Help America Vote Act) number.
- Among the 1,320 voter-registration forms that ACORN filed in Brevard County, Florida in 2008, fully two-thirds contained the names of people who had been previously registered. One Miami individual in particular filled out 21 duplicate applications.
- In 2008, in Indianapolis (where ACORN was very active), the number of registered voters exceeded the official population of voting-age adults by 33,204.
- In Lake County, Indiana, ACORN submitted 5,000 voter-registration applications in early October 2008. Of the first 2,100 that were analyzed by election officials, every single one was fraudulent. “All the signatures looked exactly the same,” said Republican election official Ruthann Hoagland. “Everything on the card filled out looks exactly the same.” The fake registrants included dead people and under-age children.
- In Jackson County, Missouri in 2008, election supervisor Charlene Davis told reporters that her office had discovered some 800 fraudulent forms filed by ACORN.
- In 2008, in St. Louis, where at least eight ACORN workers had previously pleaded guilty to fraud, at least 60 ballots were cast by voters using the identities of dead people.
- In 2008, St. Louis election officials, suspicious of many of the voter-registration applications submitted by ACORN, sent letters to some 5,000 ACORN registrants citywide, asking the recipients to contact the election board. Fewer than 40 reponded.
- In 2008, in Kansas City, Missouri (where four ACORN employees had been indicted for fraud a year earlier), approximately 15,000 registrations were judged to be questionable. Two years earlier in Kansas City, 40 percent of the 35,000 registrations submitted by ACORN had been fraudulent.
- In October 2008, in Las Vegas, the FBI raided ACORN’s offices after reports surfaced that the organization had fraudulently registered a number of new “voters” with fictitious names.
- In 2008, in Clark County, Nevada, registrar of voters Larry Lomax told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that ACORN was submitting 2,000 to 3,000 fraudulent applications per week.
- In late 2008, Nevada criminal investigator Colin Hayes of the Secretary of State’s office said that 59 prison inmates had worked for ACORN from early March through late July of that year. According to the Las Vegas Sun, “One ex-employee of ACORN, Jason Anderson, rose to the rank of a supervisor in the voter registration program although he was a convicted felon and an inmate at Casa Grande at the time.”
- In Oakland County, Michigan in 2008, election officials discovered more than 33,000 duplicate voter-registration applications, most of which had been submitted by ACORN workers.
- Between January and October 2008 in North Carolina, where ACORN was particularly active, the number of newly registered Democrats exceeded newly registered Republicans by a margin of 218,749 to 38,337. This imbalance was evident even in the Charlotte area, where in previous election years new Republicans had consistently outnumbered new Democrats by a 2-to-1 ratio. One ACORN worker in Charlotte was found to have forged approximately 70 registrations.
- In 2008, the Cuyahoga County (Ohio) board of elections openly accused ACORN of fraud.
- In 2008, approximately 8,000 of the 72,000 new applications submitted by ACORN in Ohio appeared to be fraudulent.
In November 2008, investigative reporter Matthew Vadum observed that “[c]urrent and former ACORN employees say ACORN makes no effort to remove bogus voter registrations.” “There’s no quality control on purpose, no checks and balances,” saidformer Missouri ACORN worker Nate Toler. “The internal motto is ‘We don’t care if it’s a lie, just so long as it stirs up the conversation.” According to Vadum:
“ACORN always resists accepting blame for the systemic electoral fraud that is its forte. It’s never their fault. Not surprisingly, the group said [in October 2008] that rogue operators—not ACORN officials at the top—were responsible for the invalid voter registrations. ACORN said it had to fire 829 of the 10,000 canvassers it hired during the election for problems such as falsifying registration forms.”
As a matter of policy, ACORN never conducted criminal background checks on its voter-registration canvassers. In Nevada, a number of ex-felons who had been convicted of identity theft were made ACORN supervisors.
Indeed, ACORN cared so little about the integrity of the electoral system that in 2010 its voter-mobilization division, Project Vote, put Amy Adele Busefink in charge of its national get-out-the-vote operation. Busefink had previously run ACORN’s fraud-ridden 2008 voter-registration drive in which 400,000 bogus registrations were thrown out.
1. Register as many Democrat voters as possible, legal or otherwise and help them vote, multiple times if possible.
2. Overwhelm the system with fraudulent registrations using multiple entries of the same name, names of deceased, random names from the phone book, even contrived names.
3. Make the system difficult to police by lobbying for minimal identification standards.
ACORN and the Housing Crisis:
Just as ACORN was heavily involved in voter-registration fraud, so was it a key player in the chain of events and policies that led to the housing crash and economic crisis of 2008. That crisis had its roots in the 1977 passage of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a federal law that outlawed “redlining” (the refusal of banks to lend money to borrowers located in areas known for their high default rates on loans). The CRA required banks to extend credit to undercapitalized, high-risk borrowers in low-income, mostly-minority areas. The Act also established extensive government oversight to monitor how well banks were complying with its mandates.
Under CRA guidelines, any bank wishing to expand or to merge with another financial institution was required to first demonstrate that it had complied with all CRA rules. Final approval for expansions or mergers could be stalled, or derailed entirely, if “community groups” like ACORN were to accuse a bank — however frivolously or unjustly — of having violated the mandates of CRA.
In the early 1990s, ACORN, thus empowered by the CRA, insisted that banks demonstrate their commitment to minority lending by drastically lowering their standards on down-payments and underwriting, and by making loans even to borrowers — especially nonwhite minorities — with bad credit histories. If banks expressed reluctance to do so, ACORN intimidated them into compliance by threatening to sue them, to smear them in the media with negative-publicity campaigns (accusing them of racist and anti-immigrant lending practices), and to block any mergers which the banks might seek in the future. These threats were often accompanied by rowdy crowds of ACORN demonstrators swarming bank offices and lobbies.
In response, terrified bank executives routinely agreed to appoint ACORN as their official “advisor” on CRA compliance, thereby giving the group carte blanche to channel loans to its own hand-picked recipients. One ACORN leader boasted that her organization had become proficient at dragging banks “kicking and screaming” into high-risk loans for low-income people with shady credit histories. By September 1992, ACORN was issuing fact sheets broadcasting its success in having forced lenders to lower their credit standards on behalf of minorities. Ultimately, ACORN proudly claimed “credit for saving the CRA.”
The New York Post explains what happened next:
“As ACORN ran its campaigns against local banks, it quickly hit a roadblock. Banks would tell ACORN they could afford to reduce their credit standards by only a little — since Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the federal mortgage giants, refused to buy up those risky loans for sale on the ‘secondary market.’ That is, the CRA wasn’t enough. Unless Fannie and Freddie were willing to relax their credit standards as well, local banks would never make home loans to customers with bad credit histories or with too little money for a down-payment. So ACORN’s Democratic friends in Congress moved to force Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to dispense with normal credit standards. Throughout the early ’90s, they imposed ever-increasing subprime-lending quotas on Fannie and Freddie…. [In June 1995] the Clinton administration announced a comprehensive strategy to push homeownership in America to new heights — regardless of the compromise in credit standards that the task would require. Fannie and Freddie were assigned massive subprime lending quotas, which would rise to about half of their total business by the end of the decade.”
This strengthening of the CRA’s loan mandates, coupled with the authority that ACORN and other “community organizations” were given to intervene at yearly bank reviews, placed ACORN and likeminded activist groups in a position of great influence. Banks, eager to receive good reports from these groups (in order to avoid having their merger plans blocked or their lending practices challenged by the Justice Department), funneled immense sums of money to ACORN, et al. As the New York Post stated, “intimidation tactics, public charges of racism and threats to use CRA to block business expansion have enabled ACORN to extract hundreds of millions of dollars in loans and contributions from America’s financial institutions.”
One financial-industry consultant lamented: “The banks know they are being held up, but they are not going to fight over this. They look at it as a cost of doing business.” Robert L. Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise (a community-action group that calls for individual responsibility rather than reliance on government handouts), put it this way: “ACORN knows that corporate America has no starch in their shorts and, therefore, what they try to do is buy peace from groups that agitate against them. The same corporations that pay ransom to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton pay ransom to ACORN.”
According to author and political analyst Michelle Malkin, in 2005 ACORN’s San Diego office “publicly announced a partnership with Citibank to secure home loans for illegal aliens.” Wrote Malkin in September 2009:
“In 2005, Citibank and ACORN Housing Corporation [ACORN’s largest and most well-funded branch] — which received tens of millions of tax dollars under the Bush administration alone — began recruiting Mexican illegal aliens for a lucrative program offering loans with below-market interest rates, down-payment assistance and no mortgage insurance requirements. Instead of the Social Security numbers required of law-abiding citizens, the program allows illegal alien applicants to supply loosely monitored tax identification numbers issued by the IRS.
“The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that ‘undocumented residents’ comprise a vast market representing a potential sum of ‘$44 billion in mortgages.’ Citibank enlarged its portfolio of subprime and other risky loans. ACORN enlarged its membership rolls. The program now operates in Miami; New York City; Jersey City, N.J.; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Bridgeport, Conn.; and at all of ACORN Housing’s 12 California offices.
“San Diego ACORN officials advised illegal alien recruits that their bank partners would take applicants who had little or no credit, or even ‘nontraditional records of credit, such as utility payments and documentation of private loan payments.’
“The risk the banks bear is the price they pay to keep ACORN protesters and Hispanic lobbyists from the National Council of La Raza screaming about ‘predatory lending’ off their backs. These professional grievance-mongers have turned the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act — which forced lenders to sacrifice underwriting standards for ‘diversity’ — into lucrative ‘business’ opportunities. Or rather, politically correct blackmail.
“As the Consumer Rights League noted in a 2008 report on the group’s successful shakedowns of financial institutions, ‘an agreement with Citibank, a significant ACORN donor and partner, showed that some activists become less active when deals are in place.’”
Ultimately, the watered-down mortgage-lending standards championed by ACORN helped create the financial crisis that struck the United States in 2008. As Stanley Kurtz observed in October 2008, “For years, ACORN had combined manipulation of the CRA with intimidation-protest tactics to force banks to lower credit standards. Its crusade, with help from Democrats in Congress, to push these high-risk ‘subprime’ loans on banks is at the root of today’s economic meltdown.”
On June 2, 2008, ACORN’s national board fired Wade Rathke from his position as ACORN’s chief organizer, when it was publicly revealed that he had orchestrated an eight-year cover-up of massive embezzlement perpetrated by his brother and senior ACORN official, Dale Rathke. Specifically, the latter had embezzled $948,000 from ACORN and its affiliated groups in 1999 and 2000. In 2008 ACORN admitted that for eight years its executives had kept this information secret from almost all of their organization’s board members and from law-enforcement authorities, while Dale Rathke had remained on ACORN’s payroll as an “assistant.” (ACORN made this public admission only because a group of foundations and private donors had recently learned of Dale Rathke’s crimes and were preparing to go public with them.)
Once Dale Rathke’s transgressions had become public knowledge, the Rathke family repaid $210,000 to ACORN and signed a promissory note pledging to repay the remainder of the stolen funds at a rate of $30,000 per year. At that point, however, Tides Foundation president Drummond Pike secretly purchased the promissory note and thus personally repaid the $738,000 balance to ACORN.
Reflecting later on the embezzlement scandal, ACORN president Maude Hurd said: “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. 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.” Wade Rathke, meanwhile, said the decision to keep his brother’s crimes secret was not made to shield the latter from public criticism or legal action, but rather because the information could have been exploited as a “weapon” by ACORN’s detractors.
When Wade Rathke stepped down from his post with ACORN, he was ordered to sever any connections he had to the organization. But rather than comply with this mandate, he went on to become the head of ACORN International. He likewise failed to resign from his position as president and director of Affiliated Media Foundation Movement, an ACORN affiliate that produced news segments for alternative radio stations. Further, he remained the publisher of ACORN’s Social Policy magazine.
In early October 2009, it was revealed that Dale Rathke’s embezzlement had been far more extensive than first thought. It actually had amounted to $5 million.
ACORN’s Positions on Various Key Issues:
* ACORN supported the proposed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would authorize a federal arbitrator to render a final and binding resolution for any union negotiations that are not settled quickly, meaning that, as journalist Claire Berlinski put it, “the federal government will gain the power to dictate the terms of a contract and to set wages, benefits, hours, and work rules.” Moreover, the EFCA would make it easier for organizers to intimidate workers into forming new unions. For details on EFCA, click here.
* ACORN favored the resurrection of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, which was originally instituted in the early days of the Federal Communications Commission “to ensure that all coverage of controversial issues by a broadcast station be balanced and fair,” but was later repealed in 1987. The reinstatement of that Doctrine would inevitably have the effect of diminishing the influence of conservatives on talk radio. As one former Kennedy administration official candidly acknowledged: “Our massive strategy was to use the Fairness Doctrine to challenge and harass the right-wing broadcasters, and hope that the challenges would be so costly to them that they would be inhibited and decide it was too costly to continue.” For more details on the Fairness Doctrine, click here.
* ACORN was adamantly opposed to school vouchers that would help parents defray the cost of tuition if they wished to send their children to private schools. When Manhattan Institute scholar Sol Stern, on one occasion, politely suggested to ACORN official Bertha Lewis that ACORN families might benefit by a school-voucher program for students who were failing in public schools, Lewis angrily replied that vouchers were “a hoax to destroy the public schools” and to divide people on the basis of “race and class.” “This is capitalism at its worst,” she shouted. “You always do it on the backs of the poor. It’s all bullshit, and you know it.”
ACORN’s Ties to Leading Democrats:
ACORN had a particularly friendly relationship with Hillary Clinton, who was a featured guest speaker at the organization’s 2006 national convention. During that address, the senator lauded ACORN for working “with people who want to organize unions in order to have a better chance to bargain collectively for pay and benefits.”
Notwithstanding its affinity for Mrs. Clinton, ACORN had even closer, more longstanding ties to Barack Obama. Thus on February 21, 2008, the organization officially endorsed Obama for U.S. President. This endorsement came at the very height of Obama’s hard-fought Democratic primary battle against Hillary Clinton. Welcoming the endorsement, Obama told an audience of ACORN workers and supporters: “I’ve been fighting alongside ACORN on issues that you care about my entire career.”
Tracing ACORN’s historical ties to Obama, columnist Mona Charen wrote:
“ACORN attracted Barack Obama in his youthful community organizing days. Madeline Talbott [a Chicago activist who led the aforementioned ACORN effort to storm the Chicago City Council in July 1997] hired him to train her staff — the very people who would later descend on Chicago’s banks as CRA shakedown artists. [Obama] later funneled money to [ACORN] through the Woods Fund, on whose board he sat, and through the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, ditto. Obama was not just sympathetic — he was an ACORN fellow traveler.”
The New York Post reported the following about ACORN’s links to Obama:
“Chicago ACORN sought out Obama’s legal services for a ‘motor voter’ case and partnered with him on his 1992 ‘Project VOTE’ registration drive. In those years, he also conducted leadership-training seminars for ACORN’s up-and-coming organizers. That is, Obama was training the army of ACORN organizers who participated in Madeline Talbott’s drive against Chicago’s banks. More than that, Obama was funding them. As he rose to a leadership role at Chicago’s Woods Fund, he became the most powerful voice on the foundation’s board for supporting ACORN and other community organizers. In 1995, the Woods Fund substantially expanded its funding of community organizers — and Obama chaired the committee that urged and managed the shift.
In 2004, Toni Foulkes, a Chicago-based member of the ACORN national board, wrote that “[b]y the time he [Obama] ran for U.S. Senate, we [ACORN and Obama] were old friends.”
In 2008 Obama’s presidential campaign demonstrated its solidarity with ACORN by quietly giving one of the organization’s front groups some $800,000 to fund a voter-registration drive on the senator’s behalf.
ACORN International Rebrands Itself:
As of May 2009, ACORN claimed more than 400,000 dues-paying member families and more than 1,200 chapters in 110 U.S. cities. (The organization was also active in Canada and Mexico). Moreover, it owned two radio stations, a housing corporation, and a law office, and maintained affiliate relationships with a host of trade-union locals. ACORN also ran schools where children were trained in class-consciousness (New York City’s Bread and Roses High School and the ACORN High School for Social Justice); a network of “boot camps” for the training of street activists; and operations that extorted contributions from banks and other businesses under threat of racial violence and trumped-up civil-rights charges.
But by this point, many Americans were aware of ACORN’s rampant corruption. Thus, in an effort to distance itself from its toxic image, ACORN’s global entity, ACORN International, announced on June 17, 2009 that it was changing its name to Community Organizations International. “This may indeed be the beginning of an ACORN network-wide rebranding, but a rotten ACORN by any other name still stinks,” said Matthew Vadum at the time. Speculation swirled that the parent organization, referenced throughout this profile as ACORN, was considering a name-change as well.
More ACORN Corruption:
A July 2009 congressional report — titled “Is ACORN Intentionally Structured As a Criminal Enterprise?” — accused ACORN of massive fraud, money laundering, and racketeering directed from the highest levels of the organization’s management.
On September 10, 2009, the website BigGovernment.com and Glenn Beck of Fox News went public with secretly videotaped footage of two employees at ACORN Housing’s Baltimore office advising a young man and woman (investigative journalists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, who were posing undercover as a pimp and a prostitute) on how they could defraud the federal government out of taxpayer dollars for the purpose of financing a brothel staffed by more than a dozen underage illegal aliens from El Salvador. In the video, the ACORN workers happily advised the couple on how they could go about obtaining government money to fund their prostitution ring. After Beck aired the video on his program, ACORN initially called accused him of promoting an unfounded “smear.” But the following day the organization fired both of the workers who had appeared in the video.
Another video featuring O’Keefe and Giles surfaced soon thereafter, revealing a similar undercover operation in which Washington, DC employees of ACORN Housing were likewise willing to participate in the same scam. ACORN promptly fired those employees as well, again claiming that they had been victimized by a “smear” campaign.
Within days, yet another undercover video surfaced, showing an ACORN Housing employee in the organization’s San Bernardino, California office encouraging illegal behavior; claiming to have close ties to various politicians; acknowledging that she had previously been in the prostitution business; and stating that she had killed her own husband.
Mike Shea, executive director of ACORN Housing, said the aforementioned videos werereflective of only a small handful of rogue employees. ACORN founder Wade Rathke blamed the group’s problems on partisan zealotry. “This is all just more reputational McCarthyism as the rightwing and Republicans attack ACORN,” he said.
Meanwhile, ACORN president Bertha Lewis said the videos had been “doctored,” characterizing them as a “well-orchestrated, well-funded, concerted, relentless campaign to attack this organization.” She did not explain, however, why she had fired the employees who appeared in those videos — without defending their reputations — if the tapes indeed had been doctored. Nor did she explain why ACORN had suddenly suspended all hiring in order to conduct an internal review.
On September 17, 2009, ACORN-San Diego official David Langstein fired employee Juan Carlos Vera, who had been caught on video offering James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles advice about, and help with, smuggling people across the Tijuana border; he also had asked Miss Giles (posing as a prostitute) how much her services cost. Langstein said that while his organization was “furious” that hidden cameras had been used to film his employees, “we accept the imperfections that [the video] exposed.”
A few days later, in light of the damning undercover sting videos, the Internal Revenue Service dropped ACORN from its Volunteer Income Tax Preparation program, through which approximately 3 million low- and moderate-income tax filers had received free advice during the course of that year, and through which some 25,000 people had received help with their tax returns.
ACORN’s Advisory Council:
As of September 2009, ACORN had an eight-member Advisory Council consisting of John Podesta (president and CEO of the Center for American Progress); Andrew Stern(president of the Service Employees International Union); Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (board member of the RFK Foundation and former Maryland lieutenant governor); Henry Cisneros (executive chairman of Cityview); John Banks (vice president of government relations for Con Edison); Eric Eve, senior vice president of Global Consumer Group); Harvey Hirschfeld (president of Lawcash); and Dave Beckwith (executive director of the Needmor Fund).
The Federal Government Cuts Its Ties to ACORN:
On September 11, 2009, the U.S. Census Bureau severed its ties with ACORN, which had been slated to help with the execution of the 2010 nationwide census. Census Director Robert Groves wrote a letter to ACORN, stating:
“It is clear that ACORN’s affiliation with the 2010 census promotion has caused sufficient concern in the general public, has indeed become a distraction from our mission, and may even become a discouragement to public cooperation, negatively impacting 2010 census efforts.”
On September 17, 2009, the “Defund ACORN Act,” which had been introduced two days earlier by Republican Leader John Boehner in an effort to completely cut off federal funding for the organization, was passed overwhelmingly by both houses of Congress. The bill passed by a 345-75 margin in the House of Representatives (including 172 Democrats who voted in favor), and by an 83-7 vote in the Senate (including 50 Democrats who voted in favor). In short, ACORN had so badly disgraced itself, that it had essentially lost the support of the very party on whose behalf it had been lobbying for decades. The congressional funding ban would not be permanent, however; it was attached to annual appropriations bills and thus was slated to expire a year later, on September 30, 2010.
In November 2009 ACORN sued the U.S. government, claiming that the recently enacted defunding resolution was unconstitutional. ACORN was represented in the lawsuit by the Center for Constitutional Rights.
ACORN Reconstitutes Itself in the Form of State and Regional Groups Bearing Different Names:
On January 12, 2010, ACORN’s California chapter (the largest affiliate in the ACORN network) changed its name to the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) — in an effort to distance itself from the highly publicized scandals in which ACORN had been involved during 2008 and 2009. On February 23, 2010, Arkansas ACORN similarly announced that it was re-forming itself under the name Arkansas Community Organizations (ACO)
By March 2010, ACORN’s once-masive operating budget had fallen to $4 million, and was further diminished by huge legal fees. Moreover, with various state chapters splintering away, CEO Bertha Lewis announced that ACORN was folding, effective April 1.
But in fact, ACORN did not dissolve at that time. Instead, more of its state chapters — like ACCE and ACO before them — rebranded themselves under new names while staying true to the same agendas they had always pursued. By early April 2010, these new groups included:
- Texas Organizing Project (TX)
- Missourians Organizing for Reform Empowerment (MO)
- New York Communities for Change (NY)
- New England United for Justice (MA, CT, RI)
- Arkansas Community Organizations (AK)
- Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (CA)
- A Community Voice (LA)
- Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (MN)
- Pennsylvania Neighborhoods for Social Juatice, and Pennsylvania Communities Organizing for Change (PA)
- Organization United for Reform (WA)
- Communities United (Washington DC and MD)
Likewise, ACORN Housing, which was ACORN’s largest and most well-funded affiliate, changed its legal name to Affordable Housing Centers of America (AHCOA).
By 2011, Judicial Watch would identify five more newly formed organizations with ties to ACORN:
- Communities United, Inc. (Washington, DC)
- Action NC (North Carolina)
- Living United for Change in Arizona (AZ)
- Organize Now, Inc. (FL)
- Organizers in the Land of Enchantment (NM
Nearing the End:
Two weeks after ACORN’s faked dissolution on April Fool’s Day, Bertha Lewis sent out a mass email declaring that “ACORN is not dead!” — asking for support and asserting that private donations had actually increased since the scandal erupted. On April 20, Lewis reported that ACORN was “still alive,” albeit “limping along” and “on life support.” The organization’s staff, which had formerly consisted of as many as 600 people, had been reduced to 4.
In May 2010, Affordable Housing Centers of America (AHCOA) disclosed in a lobbying-reporting form that in the first quarter of 2010, it had paid a lobbying firm $40,000 to lobby both houses of Congress, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (which was investigating ACORN), the Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of Justice. These lobbying expenditures were made despite the fact that AHCOA was nearly $2.5 million in the red.
Matthew Vadum reports that in the early months of 2010, former Democratic congressman Timothy J. Roemer, President Obama’s ambassador to India, “lent his name and the prestige of the U.S. government to ACORN India’s efforts” to organize rag-pickers in Dharavi, a slum in the suburbs of Mumbai. The U.S. consulate in Mumbai, headed by Consul General Paul Flombsee, also co-sponsored a March 2010 water-conservation event with ACORN India, which reported to Community Organizations International (formerly called ACORN International). In May 2010, Vadum wrote the following about ACORN International:
“One of the reasons the group was created was to allow ACORN to apply its corporate shakedown techniques against Western corporations as they expand into rapidly developing markets such as India. ACORN India’s website declares that the group was created to help defend the ‘socialist legacy’ of Jawaharlal Nehru, a leftist who was prime minister of India from 1947 to 1964. That ‘legacy’ is ‘now in danger from the onslaught of the march of global corporatism,’ according to the website.”
ACORN Officially Shuts Its Doors:
On November 2, 2010, Bertha Lewis announced that ACORN had filed a Chapter 7bankruptcy petition. In a statement posted on the group’s website, Lewis claimed that ACORN, because of its own “highly effective strategies,” had been unfairly targeted for a “political onslaught” and a “barrage of unmitigated accusations” by its “right-wing” foes.
In 2010, at least 15 former ACORN employees were convicted of voter fraud-related activities.
In August 2011, the former ACORN, having previously pleaded guilty to unlawfully paying cash bonuses to voter-registration canvassers who managed to meet their quotas, was convicted of felony voter fraud. This marked the first time that ACORN itself, as opposed to its individual workers, had been convicted of a crime. The court fined ACORN $5,000, the maximum allowed under state law. At the sentencing hearing, Las Vegas Judge Donald Mosley said:
“It is making a mockery of our election process. If I had an individual in this courtroom … who was responsible for this kind of thing, I would put that person in prison for 10 years, hard time, and not think twice about it…. This is the kind of thing you see in some banana republic, Uruguay or someplace, not in the United States.”
While ACORN as a national entity officially disbanded in 2010 after 40 years of activism, its aforementioned offshoot organizations continued, undeterred, to pursue ACORN’s traditional agendas.
In July 2012, however, it was reported that the Affordable Housing Centers of America (AHCOA) — formerly known as ACORN Housing — had vacated its Chicago premises and ceased operations due to bankruptcy.