After sporadic controversy in recent years over the national community organizing group’s political activities, a firestorm has erupted with hidden camera videos showing workers dishing advice to a couple wanting to set up a brothel.
It was a ruse — mini skirt, fur coat and all — but several ACORN workers seemed happy to oblige. In Brooklyn, an employee instructed the couple to not reveal their line of work in seeking a home and to hide earnings in a tin can in the back yard. In Baltimore, a counselor advised how to shield a home full of underage girls from El Salvador.
With their shaky, poorly-lit cinéma vérité aesthetic, the videos have enraged and emboldened critics. Powered by YouTube and Fox News, they have inflicted more damage than past repeated attempts by conservative talk show hosts to link election impropriety to President Barack Obama.
Today conservatives are shouting a collective TOLD YOU SO. Viewers of Glenn Beck have taken up his edict to call newspapers and demand front-page coverage.
And lawmakers jumped to action, calling for a federal investigation and voting Monday to cut off taxpayer funding. Longtime critics renewed calls for the IRS to investigate ACORN’s tax-exempt status.
ACORN calls it a right-wing sham — “Journalism by Borat,” seethed spokesman Scott Levenson — and says a few bad employees, who have been fired, should not indict an entire organization.
The group, formally the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, announced Wednesday it is ordering mandatory training for employees and an independent review.
But it questioned the motives of the admittedly conservative movie makers and called for copies of unedited tapes. “I will clean this house,” CEO Bertha Lewis pledged on CNN.
Even so, the damage may be hard to overcome. Washington has reacted with remarkable speed and force:
• On Friday, the Census Bureau said it no longer wanted ACORN’s help with the 2010 population count.
• On Monday, the Senate voted 83-7 to prohibit housing and community grant funding for the group, citing the videos. Both Florida senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican George LeMieux, were in the majority. House Republicans quickly introduced legislation to do the same and sent a letter urging Obama to take a stand.
• On Tuesday, Sen. Mike Johanna, R-Neb., demanded Attorney General Eric Holder launch an investigation into ACORN, which he said may “have been engaged in illegal activity” by aiding and abetting tax evasion, prostitution, human trafficking, fraud and conspiracy.
• On Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, took to the House floor to condemn the group. “I for one will not sit idle and allow my taxpaying constituents to be swindled by an organization that receives millions in federal funds.”
According to lawmakers, the group has gotten about $53 million since 1994. An ACORN spokeswoman said less than 5 percent of its operating budget is federal funding, with the bulk coming from private and foundation donations.
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ACORN was founded in Arkansas in 1970 as an advocate for the poor. With chapters in more than 40 states, the group helps first-time home buyers and tenants. It champions better schools and higher wages for workers.
In 2004, ACORN gathered enough signatures for a constitutional amendment to raise the minimum wage in Florida. It passed overwhelmingly. The group has fought utilities in Orlando and predatory lending in Miami-Dade.
“There is nothing else that covers the issues and does the multiple things,” said Florida director Stephanie Porta. “I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe in it.”
But ACORN has also engaged in politics. Though ostensibly nonpartisan, the group has been accused of being a front for Democrats, including Obama. As a young lawyer, he represented ACORN along with other plaintiffs in a case against the governor of Illinois, demanding that the state better enforce a new federal “motor voter” law, which allowed people to register to vote when they got their driver’s license.
During the 2008 election, ACORN boasted that it signed up 1.3 million voters, though it was later revealed that 30 percent were rejected for a variety of reasons, including duplicate or incomplete forms.
Some were flat-out fraudulent, leading to investigations in several states and giving weight to Republican complaints. The St. Petersburg Times reported in October how one person tried to submit a Florida registration form for Mickey Mouse. In Nevada, names of the Dallas Cowboys were submitted.
Last week in Miami, authorities announced the arrest of 11 former registration canvassers who submitted nearly 200 bogus forms.
But prosecutors say the Miami workers appear to have been motivated by money, not partisanship. They were paid $8 to $10 per hour to gather signatures and some apparently thought it easier to just make up names.
The workers were turned in by ACORN.
“We think this demonstrates the seriousness with which we take protecting both our good name and the integrity of the voter registration process,” said Brian Kettenring, former Florida head organizer and now deputy director of national operations.
The Florida Division of Elections said it had no concern about voter fraud.
“The department has not received any evidence of widespread attempts to defraud the system,” Secretary of State Kurt Browning said in a statement.
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ACORN’s election activities stirred complaints throughout the 2008 campaign and were constant fodder for conservative pundits. But it mostly remained on the periphery.
A fake prostitute and pimp changed all that.
The guerrilla videos were made by 20-somethings James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, who is a journalism student at Florida International University.
O’Keefe, 25, last made news for undercover videos shot at Planned Parenthood, where he asked that donations be used for abortions of minority babies.
“Why go after ACORN?” Giles told the New York Post. “Because I love America, I love God, and corrupt institutions don’t help that.”
ACORN said it was appalled by the workers’ responses in the videos but also suggested they could have been doctored. The group contends O’Keefe and Giles went to several other cities, including Miami, and were turned away.
On Wednesday, ACORN said the worker in a video from San Bernardino, Calif., was hip to the game and played along by saying she once ran a prostitution business and shot her husband dead in self defense.
Police issued a statement saying both of her former husbands are alive.