By Steven A. Holmes and Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
ACORN, a community organizing group that has operated for nearly 40 years outside the national spotlight, suddenly finds itself a central issue in the presidential campaign.
Republican officials and advisers to Sen. John McCain have sought to paint the group -- which focuses on low-income housing, voter registration, the minimum wage and other issues -- as radical and have accused it of playing a role in the economic crisis and fomenting voter fraud. At the same time, the McCain campaign has sought to tie the group closely to Sen. Barack Obama.
The charges have come repeatedly, in news releases, conference calls to reporters and remarks on the campaign trail.
Republican National Committee spokesman Danny Diaz called ACORN a "quasi-criminal group" last week during one of a series of news conferences, charging that the group was committing fraud during its voter-registration drives. "We don't do that lightly," RNC chief counsel Sean Cairncross said.
All this leaves leaders of ACORN -- formally known as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now -- agape.
"It's pretty shocking that anyone would say such a thing," Bertha Lewis, interim chief organizer for National ACORN, said of Diaz's assertion. "It's a lie, it's irresponsible, and I'm really disappointed that they would say such a thing. What's the meaning of 'quasi-criminal' anyway?"
Cairncross accused ACORN of engaging in a "systematic effort to undermine the election process" through its voter-registration drives. Media reports have cited problems in 12 states, in which registration cards submitted by ACORN were incomplete or had false or duplicate names or were turned in without a person's knowledge.
Much of the political attention has stemmed from a program in Nevada, where ACORN hired 59 inmates in a work program to help register voters. The state attorney general halted the program. Nevada authorities last week seized records from ACORN's Las Vegas office after accusing the group of submitting fraudulent registration forms, which included names of players for the Dallas Cowboys.
State officials in North Carolina and county officials in Missouri are also investigating registrations submitted by ACORN.
ACORN has helped register 1.3 million voters in 21 states and routinely notifies local officials of incomplete or suspicious registration cards, Lewis said in a recent interview. She said local election officials sometimes use those cards to "come back weeks or months later and accuse us of deliberately turning in phony cards."
In a statement, Lewis said that "groups threatened by our historic success" have gone after ACORN because of whom the group registers: As many as 70 percent of the new voters are minorities, and half are younger than 30.
The McCain campaign also has sought to link ACORN to the financial crisis. One of the campaign's online ads says the Chicago chapter of the group was engaged in "bullying banks" to issue "risky" mortgages -- "the same type of loans that caused the financial crisis we're in today," the ad's narrator says.
ACORN officials acknowledge that the group lobbied for passage of the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977, which required banks to try to increase lending to low-income home buyers. The group also urged banks, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to loosen requirements on mortgages available to low-income applicants.
But ACORN officials, supported by several economists, say it is absurd to blame the crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act, which has been in place for decades. They also note that much of the subprime lending came from investment banks not under the act's jurisdiction. In fact, they say, they have been pressuring federal regulators since 1999 to crack down on many of the institutions that provided subprime loans.
"ACORN, more than any other group, pleaded with regulators . . . to please, please regulate these institutions because they were stealing market share from banks that were making safe loans and inflating housing prices," said Mike Shea, executive director of ACORN Housing, an arm of the group that focuses on building low- and moderate-income housing.
ACORN fired back yesterday at the McCain campaign, releasing a 2006 photo of the Arizona senator delivering the keynote speech at a pro-immigration rally in Miami that the group sponsored. "Maybe it is out of desperation that Senator McCain has forgotten that he was for ACORN before he was against ACORN," Lewis said in a news release.
In the interview, Lewis said the attacks are aimed at discrediting not only ACORN but also Obama, noting that the group is what Obama boasts of once being -- a community organizer.
"Look, he's got a funny name, and he started out in a funny profession that is always challenging the status quo," she said.
Republicans have often pointed to links between ACORN and Obama. The McCain campaign has asserted that Obama once represented ACORN in court and did work for it and that it is an arm of his campaign, with Obama trying to conceal an $800,000 payment to the organization for campaign work.
Obama's presidential campaign was endorsed by ACORN's political action committee. And Obama campaign officials acknowledged paying a group affiliated with ACORN more than $800,000 to conduct get-out-the-vote operations during the Democratic primaries in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Texas. The campaign said $80,000 of that money went directly to ACORN.
Campaign officials also said the payment was originally reported to the Federal Election Commission as going toward "staging, sound and lighting" as part of advance work. Officials said that the report was the result of a clerical error and that the campaign later filed amended forms.
Early in Obama's career, he took part in training sessions for ACORN staff members in Chicago, according to campaign and ACORN officials. And in 1995, Obama was one of three lawyers from the law firm of Miner, Barnhill and Galland assigned to represent a coalition of organizations suing the state of Illinois over failure to implement the National Voter Registration Act, or the motor-voter law. The groups included ACORN, the League of Women Voters and the U.S. Justice Department.
The national attention comes at a time when ACORN is trying to dig itself out of an internal scandal.
Its founder, Wade Rathke, resigned after it was alleged that his brother Dale had embezzled nearly $1 million from the organization in 1999 and 2000 through faulty credit card charges. That prompted several foundations providing funding for ACORN to halt making grants until they were assured the organization had cleaned up its operations.
ACORN's board of directors hired an outside auditing firm and the law firm of Sidley Austin -- Barack and Michelle Obama's old law firm -- to advise it.
"Once it was revealed, the board acted swiftly," Lewis said. "They said they wanted a financial review, top to bottom, of our system."