Politics

From little ACORNs, new state-level organizations grow

Matthew Vadum Senior Vice President, Capital Research Center

ACORN’s state chapter in Missouri is the latest to rebrand itself as part of ACORN’s national strategy to distance itself from its negative public image.

The creation of the St. Louis-based Missourians Organizing for Reform Empowerment Inc. (MORE) brings to five the number of ACORN’s state chapters that have shut down and incorporated themselves separately under new names.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is gearing up to begin funding ACORN again despite a congressional ban and an unresolved lawsuit. In a March 16 memo Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Peter Orszag quietly ordered federal agencies to resume funding the group whose employees were caught on hidden camera videos last year apparently encouraging illegal behavior. The memo came after federal judge Nina Gershon of the Eastern District of New York, a Bill Clinton appointee, made permanent her temporary injunction prohibiting Congress from cutting off funding for ACORN. Gershon found the denial of funding to ACORN to be an unconstitutional “bill of attainder.”

The memo also came despite the fact that the Department of Justice is planning to appeal Gershon’s ruling and seek a stay pending appeal. In other words, the administration is pressing ahead with restoring funding to a group that President Obama worked for and represented as a legal client even though the legal case has yet to fully work its way through the judicial system.

The rebrandings come after ACORN was hit by a tsunami of adverse publicity in the fall related to hidden camera videos showing its employees encouraging illegal behavior. After Congress voted to cut off funding to the group and various federal agencies severed ties, ACORN’s leadership resolved to abandon its damaged brand.

Critics say the rebranding process is a ruse.

For decades ACORN has maintained tight control over its supposedly independent network of affiliates through interlocking directorates and massive intra-network financial transfers. There is every indication it plans to use the same top-down management techniques under the new organizational arrangement, they say.

MORE was registered as a nonprofit advocacy group with the Missouri secretary of state’s office in Jefferson City on Dec. 3. MORE doesn’t appear to have a functioning Web site yet, but it does have its own Facebook page. The group registered the domain name organizemo.org on Jan. 13.

Longtime senior ACORN organizer Jeff Ordower recently told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “In the next couple weeks, there will be no ACORN in St. Louis.” He added, “It was pretty clear that ACORN was dying and there was no way to save it. It was time to do new things.”

It turns out MORE is one of the new “things” to which Ordower was referring.

“If Jeff’s involved in MORE, then it is absolutely 100% certain it is an ACORN front,” an ACORN insider who did not wish to be identified told me. “He’s a true believer all the way.”

Ordower did not respond to requests for comment left for him at MORE’s office. The woman answering the phone said he had “just stepped out.”

MORE has already participated in at least one ACORN-style anti-business protest. Members of the group disrupted the annual dinner of the St. Louis Regional Chamber and Growth Association, the Post-Dispatch reported Jan. 13. About two dozen activists leaped onto a stage and chanted about jobs while waving giant resumes.

Additional spinoffs are expected in coming weeks

Nathan Henderson-James, director of ACORN’s online campaigns, explained the rebranding rollout on Townhouse, an invitation-only listserv run by Matt Stoller, senior policy adviser to Florida Democrat Rep. Alan Grayson.

ACORN will probably run out of money and fold by year’s end but a dozen ACORN state chapters reincorporated to seem like new, independent organizations will soon spring up to carry on ACORN’s business, he wrote.

There will be “a dozen or more organizations launched on the state level by staff who used to work for ACORN and leaders who developed their skills as ACORN members.”

Henderson-James described the rebrandings as “not just simple name changes, but reimaginings of how best to organize low and moderate income constitiuencies [sic] without any of the legal problems and funding issues dogging ACORN, not to mention the brand damage.”

ACORN veteran Marcel Reid, who also heads a reform group called ACORN 8, said in an interview after the Henderson-James e-mail surfaced that she doesn’t believe ACORN’s recent claims that the breakaway groups aren’t being controlled by ACORN.

“The folding of ACORN isn’t happening because it’s simply going to restructure,” she said. “In the meantime they’ll give all of these new community organizations in the states an opportunity to flourish without ACORN’s legal baggage.”

The other four ACORN chapters that have shed the ACORN name are Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, New York Communities for Change, New England United for Justice (Massachusetts) and Arkansas Community Organizations.

Incidentally, ACORN, which stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, was originally called Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now when it was founded in Little Rock in 1970.

All four groups operate out of ACORN offices and are run by ACORN staffers. The president of New England United for Justice, Maude Hurd, was the 20-year national president of ACORN, as the new group’s articles of incorporation show.

Instead of changing its legal status ACORN’s best-funded affiliate, the heavily tax-subsidized ACORN Housing Corp., has changed its name to Affordable Housing Centers of America Inc., which allows the entity to continue using AHC as an acronym.

ACORN Housing, which is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is a key component of the far-flung ACORN empire of activism which has long used its housing affiliate as a piggy bank.

Although the congressionally chartered nonprofit NeighborWorks, which serves as a weigh station for HUD grants, is reportedly not setting aside any 2009 funds for ACORN Housing, in 2008 alone it awarded ACORN Housing $25 million in federal funding. In its tax returns ACORN Housing reported taking in just under $24 million in government funding from 1997 through 2007.

This federal funding is a concern for taxpayers because ACORN Housing funnels funds — possibly including government funds — to ACORN and other affiliates in the ACORN network. The network is known for its commingling of funds and it has used government resources previously for partisan political activity.

During the Clinton administration ACORN and ACORN Housing used AmeriCorps resources to give partisan speeches and assist the Clinton White House in preparing a press conference in support of legislation.

In 2007, when ACORN Housing reported taking in $5,205,527 from the government, it also made a $119,509 loan to ACORN. From 2000 to 2006, ACORN Housing also gave $3.8 million in grants to the American Institute for Social Justice, which trains budding young community organizers. If AISJ used the money for partisan activities, federal law may have been violated.