By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
A rapidly growing union that represents nurses, janitors and other low-wage workers is coming under fire from conservatives because of its long-standing financial and leadership ties to ACORN, a liberal organizing group recently embarrassed by videos filmed covertly.
Some Republicans say federal agencies that recently cut ties with ACORN -- the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now -- should also consider severing their relationship with the Service Employees International Union. The SEIU and ACORN have long worked closely together, with the union paying the association more than $3.6 million in the past three years and sharing some office locations and leaders with the group.
ACORN also faces attention from the Democratic attorney general of Louisiana, who filed a subpoena Monday in Baton Rouge that suggested $5 million may have been embezzled from the group, five times what ACORN has acknowledged. James "Buddy" Caldwell cited an ACORN internal review shared with board members for his information, which was first reported by the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
An ACORN official said in an interview that Caldwell's allegation was "completely untrue," adding that board minutes at the time show the group's president urging it to raise $5 million to cover the embezzled funds and a host of other accounting and legal expenses and back taxes.
ACORN's training of its staff and its use of federal funds were called into question last month when two conservative activists circulated undercover videos of housing counselors advising them on how to conceal a prostitution business. Congress voted to ban future funding of ACORN, and the Internal Revenue Service and the Census Bureau said that, pending an investigation, they would no longer use ACORN.
The SEIU's parent organization has paid ACORN for training, voter registration and other organizing work, and SEIU locals have paid ACORN affiliates for their services, according to union reports. ACORN founder Wade Rathke was a top member of the SEIU's board until last year and founded two SEIU locals -- in Chicago and New Orleans. SEIU President Andy Stern serves on an advisory panel that was supposed to help ACORN fix financial problems after an embezzlement was discovered last year. Other leaders have served both ACORN and the SEIU, including Keith Kelleher, who headed SEIU Local 880 and also held an ACORN staff position, and whose wife ran the ACORN office in Illinois.
Last week, Republican Reps. Mark Steven Kirk and Peter Roskam of Illinois and Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina urged the Census Bureau to stop allowing the SEIU to help recruit workers for its 2010 head count. "There's simply no place for a group so closely connected to ACORN to be part of something of such national importance as the U.S. Census," Roskam said.
Some liberal groups say that Republican complaints about the SEIU represent guilt by association.
"Right now, there is an insidious and coordinated effort on the part of the extreme right to target individuals and grass-roots community groups as a way to silence the voices of women and men who have suffered the most under eight years of right-wing policies," Stern said of attacks on ACORN and the SEIU.
Herman Benson, a labor expert and the founder of the Association for Union Democracy, said there is nothing improper on its face about the SEIU seeking out ACORN's help in connecting with low-income community members.
The larger concern about the union, Benson said, is how much Stern has centralized power within it and consolidated smaller locals into mega-unions run by handpicked loyalists whom members cannot effectively challenge.
ACORN's financial problems surfaced in 2008, with the discovery that the founder and a small staff had concealed his brother Dale Rathke's embezzlement. SEIU allegedly suffered similar malfeasance at the hands of Tyrone Freeman, a former chief of staff to Stern, whom Stern chose for his administrative slate in 2008 and named a national vice president.
In August 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that Freeman spent more than $1 million in union money in two years.
SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette said that in the wake of that report, the union created an ethics commission.
Some of the SEIU's ties to ACORN have been cut recently. Wade Rathke resigned from the union's board last year. Last month, the SEIU revoked the charter of the ACORN sister organization that Rathke ran, Local 100.
Staff writer Anne E. Kornblut and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.