ACORN's Capitol Hill office shutting down

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 25, 2010

The ACORN sign has come down, and a big "for lease" notice is posted in a window of the Washington office of the community activist group, whose leaders announced this week that they are closing state chapters across the country.

The Capitol Hill office, which had become an increasingly important location for ACORN, is shutting down six months after the organization was hammered by scandal.

"The local DC ACORN office will be closed by April 1st, like other ACORN field offices around the country," Kevin Whelan, ACORN's communications director, said in a statement. Several chapters across the country have formed similar groups with new names, but he said he does not expect one to set up in Washington.

Most of the staff members of the national office in Washington have left, Whelan said, but a few are doing wrap-up work and will remain for the time being.

The network of organizations, once powerful in its ability to mobilize low- and middle-income voters, began to falter after an alleged embezzlement scandal and coverup involving the brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke was revealed in 2008.

Then a pair of conservative activists walked into ACORN Housing offices in several cities and said they needed help setting up brothels. As they surreptitiously videotaped in the Washington office last year, ACORN employees gave them advice on how to evade taxes and police, and the clip, along with others released on BigGovernment.com, made donors and government funding evaporate.

Much of the group's work in Washington was put on hold as money dried up and employees scrambled to respond to audits.

ACORN's critics scoffed at the idea that the organization is finally closing, saying it has long used scores of related entities to achieve its political aims. "ACORN isn't folding; they're just trying to play dead to escape accountability for their wrongdoing," said U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). "The core of the organization, despite the name changes and rhetoric, is still being run by the same bad actors, using the same bank accounts, and enjoying support from the same political figures."

Michael McCray, a member of a breakaway group of ACORN leaders now based in Washington, said plans are still evolving. "Most of the people I deal with are saddened by the loss. But they're looking forward to replacing ACORN with something that's an effective advocate for low- and moderate-income members," McCray said.

On Tuesday, chief executive Bertha Lewis announced that ACORN was not dead. On Wednesday, Whelan said he thinks Lewis's point was that although the state chapters will soon be gone, the national ACORN has not filed for bankruptcy or dissolved.

Staff members from organizations that collaborated on projects in the past worked in a warren of offices across from the Marine barracks on Eighth Street SE. They included the national and local ACORN offices; ACORN Housing offices; Project Vote, a nonprofit group; a political advocacy group; and a political consulting firm.

Critics have said the group had been playing a shell game, shuttling money between organizations, a charge ACORN officials have denied.

DC ACORN organizers still went door-to-door in Ward 7 this fall, talking about improving public schools and signing up members, whose dues would be automatically withdrawn each month. But some neighborhood leaders said they hadn't heard of any activity for months.

The local ACORN Housing office, where employees had offered advice on mortgages, foreclosure and taxes, closed almost immediately after the video was released. The national office, which changed its name to Affordable Housing Centers of America, has three staff members in Washington, said spokeswoman Alyson Chadwick, although it is looking for new office space.


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