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Not Far From the Tree
ACORN and Its Political Seed

By Kathleen Parker
Sunday, September 27, 2009

While everyone in Washington is suddenly pretending they've hardly ever heard of ACORN, they might want to pretend they've never heard of the SEIU, one of the nation's largest unions.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now and the Service Employees International Union are as tight as Heidi Klum and a new pair of jeans.

You don't think about one without the other.

You also don't talk about either organization without mention of Wade Rathke, co-founder of ACORN and founder of SEIU Local 100 in New Orleans. Rathke, who resigned from ACORN last year as "chief organizer" after it became known that his brother embezzled almost $1 million from the association, continues to run Local 100, as well as ACORN International, recently renamed Community Organizations International.

Rathke's social justice empire is so vast that he is more hydra than man. Nine heads are surely better than one when you're organizing communities in at least 12 countries. While Rathke and ACORN undoubtedly have done much good for impoverished people here and abroad, it appears likely that American taxpayers indirectly have been helping to underwrite unionizing activities and advance political goals through the commingling of Rathke's various interests.

As an ironic sidebar, America's health-care reform debate could become stalled -- not by Senate Republicans demanding a cost analysis (how mundane) but by dot-connecting prompted by the Halloweenish ACORN sting starring a faux pimp and prostitute.

Screenwriters, poise your pens. Just for fun, keep this name in mind: Rod Blagojevich.

Now picture a triangle. One point is ACORN; another point is the SEIU; the third point is the taxpayer. Now picture arrows flowing back and forth, representing the exchange of greenbacks and services.

While various government agencies funded ACORN to help poor people become voters and homeowners, ACORN under Rathke created SEIU Local 100 (Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas) and SEIU Local 880 (Illinois, Indiana and Kansas). In turn, the SEIU wrote checks to ACORN for political activities and union organizing, according to ACORN whistle-blower affidavits. In 2008, the SEIU and Change to Win, a coalition of labor unions, gave ACORN $1,729,462, according to union financial reports filed with the Labor Department.

To break it down, ACORN and the SEIU are hand and glove. Rathke himself referred to the SEIU as "one of the pillars of the ACORN family of organizations" in a June 9, 2007, blog posting. This coziness has been long known among conservative watchdog groups, but Washington has paid little attention until now.

Suddenly, ACORN is as popular as a sneeze on a crowded bus. President Obama, who once represented ACORN as a lawyer and helped train organizers, recently told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he doesn't really follow ACORN much. Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, a longtime ACORN champion, has been scurrying to clarify his disapproval of the organization -- after he and a staffer gave contradictory statements about where he stood on proposals to halt ACORN funding.

Most of that fund now has been cut by an act of Congress; the Census Bureau and the IRS have severed ties with the group; the departments of Housing and Urban Development and Treasury have opened investigations.

And in a coup of absurdity, the now-infamous pimp and prostitute who tempted ACORN workers to help them set up a teenage-prostitution operation are the subjects of a lawsuit accusing them of illegally taping the staffers without their permission.

Such concerns -- and charges of voter registration fraud against ACORN -- ultimately may pale in comparison with the organizers' betrayal of public trust through the apparent commingling of taxpayer money and union funding, not to mention possible coercion and intimidation.

Just last week, the Kansas City Star reported that two state agencies acting on an SEIU public records request sought to identify in-home health workers who care for the elderly and disabled. After complaints, the state acknowledged that it was under no legal obligation to provide the information and ceased helping the SEIU. Unionizing is not a state function, needless to say. And never mind the invasion of privacy.

One needn't be a mathematician to imagine what a national health-care option might mean to a union in search of new dues-paying recruits. The SEIU, which has promised "to fight tooth and nail" for a public option, is demonstrably persuasive. In Illinois, former governor Blagojevich (thank you for your patience) helped position the SEIU so that it could unionize health-care workers when he signed an executive order allowing collective bargaining. The SEIU showed its appreciation in advance by becoming Blagojevich's largest contributor, handing over $1.8 million for his two gubernatorial campaigns.

Now that's community organization.

kathleenparker@washpost.com

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