Within conservative circles, the name ACORN remains synonymous with voter fraud and the misallocation of public funds for partisan political activities. But former insiders who played a critical role in exposing the organization’s many financial transgressions have worked under the name to champion the cause of whistleblowing. ACORN 8, which is named for the eight board members and whistleblowers who were blocked from investigating a multi-million dollar embezzlement scheme, has grown to include dozens of members across 15 states.
“Who can oppose the original mission of ACORN, which was to help communities to stand up and to represent the interests of low and middle income people?” asks Marcel Reid, one of the former board members. “One way to do this is to call for openness and transparency from our government officials. This is something that benefits everyone.”
To this end, ACORN 8 has organized annual Whistleblower Summits on Capitol Hill, which have recognized elected officials in both parties for exposing government practices that were at odds with the public interest. The third Whistleblower Summit for Civil and Human Rights, held in July, honored Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Sen. Ronald Wyden (D-Ore.)
“We don’t approach whistleblowing from a partisan position,” Michael McCray, a spokesman for ACORN 8 and co-founder of the International Association of Whistleblowers, explained. “We have always said our concerns are about right and wrong, not left versus right. As a matter of fact, our community considers whistleblowing to be a ‘transpartisan’ activity. Whistleblowing is the one issue where you can have Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) both agree on. We have members of the leftist, ultra conservatives and libertarians all under the same umbrella.”
ACORN 8’s involvement with whistleblowing and the Make it Safe Coalition (MISC) can be traced back to July 2008. That was when Reid and other board members submitted 31 questions to ACORN officers asking them to detail the organization’s financial transactions. The board members asked for a list of accounting firms for all ACORN-related entities, copies of all existing contracts with the accounting firms for all ACORN-related entities, copies of all organizational documentation for the chief organizer fund and copies of all ACORN-related payments made to the chief organizer fund.
“If this information had been forthcoming, ACORN would have been forced to clean house and we could have avoided a lot of the scandals that followed,” Reid said. “But we never did get those answers.”
In 2009, members of Congress moved to cut off funding from ACORN in response to a videotape investigation that included footage of ACORN employees explaining to undercover journalists how they could manipulate financial documents to conceal illicit activity.
Though the original network known in full as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now officially disbanded on April 1, 2010, the April Fools date may have been selected deliberately. Matthew Vadum, a senior editor with the Capital Research Center (CRC), has been keeping careful tabs on the new community organizing groups ACORN personnel created after the network filed for bankruptcy. Vadum maintains a state-by-state list of the non-profit groups that operate under the banner of generic sounding community organizing labels names that omit any mention of ACORN.
Oddly enough, ACORN leaders did threaten to sue the whistleblower group over its use of the ACORN name in a “cease and desist” letter dated June 11 2009 that was addressed to Reid and another board member.
“It is a violation of federal and state law for you to use the ACORN name and mark without the written permission of ACORN,” Arthur Schwartz, the ACORN attorney, wrote in the letter. “Should you continue to do so, you will be liable for monetary damages and injunctive relief.”
The letter set a compliance date of June 30 2009 that was never enforced.
Since then, ACORN 8 has joined forces with the Make it Safe Coalition (MISC) to advance its whistleblower agenda.
“Our conferences are always open to the public across the political spectrum and everyone is invited to participate,” McCray said. “As whistleblowers, we are staunch First Amendment advocates and always fight for transparency and accountability within the federal government.”
For her part, Reid has made it clear that she has no intention of retreating from the ACORN name.
“ACORN does not and cannot own the name; it’s an acronym for them. But ACORN 8, LLC is our legal name and we don’t see this as an impediment at all,” she said. “We want to keep the name ACORN 8. It’s our way of trying to hold the people who were in ACORN accountable for what they have done and to bring new coalitions together who support government whistleblowers.”
As the first whistleblower liaison in the media, Reid is ambitious to reach a broad cross section of Americans who see value in holding government agencies to a higher standard of accountability.
“Whistleblowing meshes perfectly with the original core mission of ACORN,” said Reid, who was also the last person to serve as chair of the Washington D.C. branch of ACORN. “Transparency helps to end disparity and inequality,” she added.
The elected officials who were recognized at this year’s summit received the Pillar Human Rights Award for International Persons of Conscience. McCray explained why each person was selected.
“Sen. Paul received his award for his staunch support of Internet Privacy and his ‘Stand With Rand’ filibuster against unlawful drone strikes,” he said. “Rep. Fudge was recognized for her commitment to civil rights and for speaking out against sexual abuse and civil rights violations at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And, for calling on the Obama Administration to protect civil rights in the federal sector. Sen. Wyden was honored for speaking out against the NSA (National Security Agency) surveillance and illegal wiretaps of American citizens; including chastising the head of homeland security for lying to Congress.”
At a time when concerned citizens from across the political spectrum have expressed concern over the use and abuse of executive power, it would seem that ACORN 8’s mission has broad appeal. A name that was previously tarnished by scandal could serve as a vehicle for reform rooted in the idea that constitutional limits matter and that all citizens deserve a voice in government.