ACORN Sues Over Secret Video, Claiming Wiretapping Violation

This image from video shows ACORN worker Shera Williams being secretly recorded in Baltimore. ACORN says the secrecy was illegal.
This image from video shows ACORN worker Shera Williams being secretly recorded in Baltimore. ACORN says the secrecy was illegal. (Associated Press)
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By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

ACORN, the community organizing group embarrassed recently in a video sting, said Wednesday that it needs to determine whether it has major internal problems, but it also struck back, filing a lawsuit against the people who conducted the secret investigation.

Bertha Lewis, head of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, told reporters in a conference call that ACORN does not support criminal activity and that it thinks the filmmakers should have obeyed Maryland laws. In the state, where one video that embarrassed ACORN was made, the act constituted illegal wiretapping, the suit says.

The videos airing in the past two weeks show ACORN housing counselors advising two young conservative activists posing as a pimp and a prostitute on how to conceal their criminal business.

Lewis said she wants a newly hired investigator to find the organization's weak spots, and she said she will make public the findings. Scott Harshbarger, a former Massachusetts attorney general hired for the investigation, vowed a "robust, no-holds-barred" review that would be "transparent." Lewis said ACORN in the meantime will have to turn away many low-income clients it normally helps with threatened foreclosure or tax preparation.

"We want to be sure that before we start helping people with services that our operation is running well," she said. "It doesn't hurt us financially. It does hurt the poor people we have served for many years."

Congress voted last week to ban federal funding for ACORN, and the organization hired Harshbarger to investigate and recommend changes.

On Wednesday, the new head of the federal Census Bureau revealed his reason for dropping ACORN as an agency partner. He said the bureau's link to ACORN was hurting efforts to get Americans to participate in the count. And Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.), ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, on Wednesday asked the House Judiciary Committee to summon Lewis, ACORN founder Wade Rathke and other ACORN officers for a hearing on its activities.

Lewis said Wednesday that rumors that ACORN is no longer registering low-income and minority voters -- the part of its mission for which ACORN is best known and most controversial -- are false.

"ACORN is going to make sure its members participate in the political process," she said.

Lewis notified the Internal Revenue Service on Monday that ACORN would shut down its free tax-help clinics for low-income people, a partnership with the IRS, until an external review of ACORN's work.

"As you know, ACORN has been the target of a sustained attack from conservative forces for a number of years," Lewis wrote. "Recent videos generated by conservative activists, including one from our tax clinic in Baltimore, MD, have raised questions about our service programs."

Meanwhile, the departed founder of ACORN said many of the accusations about the group are distortions meant to undermine President Obama and other Democrats.

In an interview, Rathke said conservative claims that ACORN is a "criminal enterprise" that misuses federal and donor funds for political ends -- an allegation contained in a report by House Republicans -- are a "complete fabrication." He said exaggeration and conjecture about the group are being passed off daily on cable television and blogs as documented fact.

Of the videos, Rathke said some of the "sneak films are too sad and painful for me to watch."

"If any of the employees violated the 'do right' rule, then they should be dismissed," he said.

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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