As ACORN grew, so did clout, problems

McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — Long before two conservative young activists strode into an ACORN office wearing a hidden camera, the grass-roots organization had been racking up kills in its decades-long quest to protect working-class people from what it saw as wrongheaded corporate interests.

ACORN — the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — was founded in 1970 by a 21-year-old organizer who wanted to try a new way of lifting up low- and moderate-income workers.

It grew over the years, mushrooming from a one-man operation in Arkansas to 400,000 members working in 105 cities — the largest community-organizing group in the nation.

According to Republican investigators and a top ACORN official, the group has received some $53 million in federal funding since 1994. Other funding comes from members’ dues and foundations.

Along the way, activists helped pass state laws requiring living wages from companies contracting with state and local governments and raising minimum wages. They helped monitor banks and lenders on the illegal practice of steering minorities into certain neighborhoods. They forged deals with corporations such as H&R Block to protect low-income earners. And they called attention to the rising scandal of subprime lending and the foreclosures that followed.

The nonpartisan group also has helped register 1.7 million voters since 2004, many of them blacks and Hispanics in urban neighborhoods who were more likely to vote Democratic.

“[ACORN] has given a voice to people who would otherwise be politically powerless,” said Peter Dreier, a professor of public policy at Occidental College in Los Angeles who has written about ACORN’s work. “And it’s rubbed the powerful forces in American society — particularly the Republican Party and big business — the wrong way.”

In recent years, the organization also found itself accused of voter-registration fraud after some of its canvassers turned in fake names to election offices in some states. And last year, the organization’s board pushed out its founder, Wade Rathke, after learning that he had concealed for eight years the embezzlement of nearly $1 million by his brother.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., used the minutes as part of an 88-page report in July outlining what he called questionable — even criminal — practices by the group.

The GOP staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, of which Issa is the top Republican, accused the organization of evading taxes, obstructing justice and improperly engaging in partisan political activities.

Weeks after the Republican House report, two undercover conservative activists began visiting ACORN offices across the country posing as a prostitute and her pimp.

In many of the offices, ACORN workers kicked the couple out and called police. But hidden-camera videos released earlier this month show ACORN workers at a handful of offices offering tax advice that appeared to encourage illegal activity.

Washington lawmakers reacted with fury, pushing to deny ACORN the right to receive much of its federal funding in separate votes last week in the House and Senate.

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