House Panel Hears Testimony on ACORN Corruption, Coercion

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, claims to be a voice for dispossessed people. But the New Orleans-based hard-Left nonprofit community organizing network of some 1,200 chapters and 400,000 dues-paying member households has a long history of shakedown artistry. And contrary to the group’s official spin, its critics are hardly limited to “the rich” or “right-wingers.” On March 19, a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on issues relating to the 2008 election cycle. Prepared testimony from a credible witness indicated that the group operates what amounts to a Mafia-style protection racket. Indeed, the evidence was disturbing enough for Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., who previously had been a supporter, to call for further hearings focused solely on ACORN. There is a strong union angle, too, given that the group owns two locals of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

From its beginnings nearly 40 years ago, ACORN has been the embodiment of aggressive, in-your-face Saul Alinsky-style community guerrilla theater. Its leaders see disruption as the best way to press demands upon the powerful on behalf of the powerless. Toward that end, they’ve led members of various chapters in storming or shouting down public hearings in a quest for “justice.” Union Corruption Update moreover has noted several times since early 2007 that ACORN street activists this decade frequently have engaged in voter-registration fraud, acts that led to successful prosecutions in Colorado, Missouri and other states. ACORN’s disdain for rule of law appears endemic at the top as well. Last June, founder and longtime chief organizer Wade Rathke stepped down from his post following the revelation that during 1999-2000 he most likely covered for his CFO brother, Dale Rathke, after the latter made unauthorized transfers of nearly $950,000 from ACORN and affiliated nonprofit groups to an ACORN-affiliated political operation, Citizens Consulting Inc. The Rathke family had paid back $210,000 in seven annual $30,000 installments until last year, when an unnamed donor, later identified as Tides Foundation CEO Drummond Pike, paid the remainder.

ACORN officials, including President Maud Hurd, steadfastly defend the group’s practices. But they’re going to have their work cut out for them in the aftermath of House Judiciary subcommittee testimony by Pittsburgh lawyer Heather Heidelbaugh. Ms. Heidelbaugh, a member of the Republican National Lawyers Association, last year led an unsuccessful attempt to secure an injunction in Pennsylvania against an ACORN voter drive. She told the panel that the Obama campaign paid Citizens Consulting Inc. more than $800,000 for get-out-the-vote drives during the primary race, and then initially indicated the expense as “sound and lighting equipment” to the Federal Election Commission. ACORN officials also allegedly: collected for the Obama campaign a list of the candidate’s maxed-out donors for solicitations; willfully engaged in registration fraud; and misused federal funds. Additionally, Heidelbaugh testified that the nonprofit network initiated a campaign, “muscle for the money,” to coerce donations and conduct protests through the use of paid street provocateurs. “The protesting was used to get companies to negotiate,” she said.

Chairman Conyers, despite his well-known calls for investigating the now-departed Bush administration, called the facts of the testimony “a pretty serious matter.” And he wants further hearings. “I think that it would be something that would be worth our time,” he said during the hearing. “We’ve never had one person representing ACORN before the committee…I think in all fairness we ought to really examine it.” That’s quite a turnaround from last October when Rep. Conyers attacked the FBI’s investigation of the group as politically-motivated. Other Democrats on the committee, however, including Reps. Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) and Melvin Watt (N.C.) aren’t too keen on the idea. Nadler suggested that there was not enough “credible evidence” to justify a hearing solely devoted to ACORN. That’s quite a stretch even for a partisan.

ACORN leaders naturally don’t want a spotlight upon them. True to form, they’re casting Anita Moncrief as a disgruntled low-level employee who couldn’t keep a job. “Nothing she says has any credibility,” said Kevin Whelan, ACORN deputy political director. But Heather Heidelbaugh’s testimony corroborates her accusations. It’s true Ms. Moncrief, for several years a clerk at the group’s Washington, D.C. office, was fired for making about $2,000 in unauthorized charges for personal expenses on her ACORN credit card. But that alone hardly invalidates her accusations. For decades, the feds have used statements by low-level mob guys to put away people of a higher rank. Whether Moncrief is trying to stay out of jail or has a vendetta against her former employer is irrelevant. The lady’s got something to say, and at least a few people in Congress want to hear it. Heidelbaugh called Moncrief a “courageous woman” who withstood threats of violence if she went public with her accusations.

All of this raises the issue of the high overlap between ACORN and the SEIU. Wade Rathke founded Service Employees Local 100, which represents several thousand workers in Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. And SEIU Local 880, representing some 75,000 home care workers in the Midwest with a high concentration in the Chicago area, began and still operates as an ACORN project. What’s more, the international union for at least a year has hired ACORN volunteers to harass The Carlyle Group, a global private-equity firm with substantial holdings in nonunion companies, until donations have been forthcoming. The SEIU no more than ACORN wants transparency. But if the March 19 hearing is any indication, that’s what they may get. (Washington Times, 3/19, 3/20; other sources).