FEMA Pulls $1 Million ACORN Firefighting Grant

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FirefightersThe Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, lately has earned a bad reputation among a wide range of benefactors. Given the New Orleans-based radical nonprofit network's involvement in a wide range of confirmed and suspected crimes, that's no surprise. The IRS and the Census Bureau each recently terminated their relationship with ACORN, while the House and Senate voted to cut off funds. Yet prior to these actions, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, better known by its acronym, FEMA, had announced plans to issue a $997,402 grant to an ACORN affiliate, the ACORN Institute of New Orleans, Louisiana. Subsequent revelations of this award triggered requests among certain Republican members of Congress to rescind the grant. FEMA soon obliged them, freezing not simply this grant, but all others to the group as well. 

The controversy centers on a federal program known as Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG), which is authorized by the Federal Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974. ACORN had been a recipient since Hurricane Katrina ripped the Gulf Coast more than four years ago. The nonprofit group last year applied for, and received, five separate FEMA grants to promote fire safety in low-income communities, the most recent, for $450,000, having been awarded on August 23, 2008. This September, FEMA's web site (www.fema.gov) listed recent grants, one of which was to an entity called the ACORN Institute of New Orleans on September 4 for $997,402 - not long before the House and Senate each voted to cut off ACORN funds.

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., smelled a rat. In a September 22 letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano (FEMA is part of her department), he requested that she direct FEMA to return the grant. Vitter wrote: "I have had grave reservations about ACORN for some time, and these concerns have recently been heightened by the serious allegations of wrongdoing on the part of ACORN. When so many fire departments throughout the nation are struggling for funding for important and lifesaving projects, how is it that a non-fire department with no clear expertise in fire safety and prevention is given such a large award for fire safety?"

The two leading Republicans on the House Science and Technology Committee also wanted a full accounting. On October 8, Reps. Paul Broun, R-Ga., and Adrian Smith, R-Neb., sent a letter to FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate requesting information the nearly $1 million grant. "Based on a growing record of corruption, voter fraud, embezzlement, racketeering, and tax evasion, both Houses of Congress recently took bipartisan action to stop funding for ACORN," the lawmakers wrote. "While the grant was awarded prior to the Congressional prohibition, questions regarding the organization's reputation should have raised red flags." Broun and Smith, respectively, ranking GOP members of the committee's Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight and Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation, sought a clarification:

Because of this, both the U.S. Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service recently ended partnerships with ACORN. Additionally, Congressional and Justice Department investigations regarding misconduct and illegal activity by the organization are ongoing, as well as a separate investigation of embezzlement of taxpayer funds by the Louisiana State Attorney General. This extensive record of problems begs the question of why your agency awarded a grant to an entity embroiled in such controversy.

FEMA Press Secretary Clark Stevens responded to such criticism. He asserted that the grant in question hadn't yet been disbursed. "The story is factually incorrect," Stevens noted. "As the Washington Times and interested members of Congress were informed earlier this week as a result of the continuing resolution, no funds have been provided. Additionally, a similar grant - whose funds were transferred - was originally provided to ACORN for fire prevention and safety activities in FY '07, under the Bush administration."

An ACORN spokesman subsequently confirmed that his organization had not received any of the money. And in a written statement, the group not only defended its fire prevention work, but questioned Sen. Vitter's motives:

Senator Vitter was with ACORN before he was against us. Sen. Vitter knows ACORN's track record on helping communities prevent tragedy, which is why our fire prevention work in low-income communities is important. Senator Vitter worked with ACORN in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to rebuild New Orleans. He provided support letters to many of our projects. It wasn't until after his prostitution scandal and until it became politically convenient, that Sen. Vitter changed his tune.

Such a revelation may well prove embarrassing to Vitter. Yet it doesn't at all undercut the basis of his criticism. For one thing, ACORN does have a demonstrated history of embezzlement, voter registration fraud and other offenses. Any grantmaking agency by this year should have seen a red flag in reviewing a request for funds by ACORN. Second, ACORN's claim of "helping communities prevent tragedy" should raise questions such as: What exactly does ACORN do in the area of fire prevention that any competent local fire department, in Louisiana or anywhere else, can't? And how has ACORN spent its previous FEMA grants? Third and finally, just because FEMA has rescinded this particular grant, that doesn't mean it won't recommit itself to it after the furor subsides. Reps. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and other House members, raised this possibility in a mid-September letter to FEMA's Fugate, asking him to redirect funds to "another reputable organization in the New Orleans area." "Taxpayer's money should not be going to an organization which has engaged in unlawful behavior," noted Bilirakis.

The weight of negative publicity has proven too much for FEMA to ignore. On Tuesday, October 6 - two days, in fact, before Reps. Broun and Smith sent their letter - FEMA announced it would impound the scheduled grant to the ACORN Institute. It wasn't that tough of a call given that the House and Senate, in separate measures, had decided to deny ACORN's access to further federal money. But it does reveal the importance of pressure, for it is unlikely this result would have materialized had lawmakers and other critics of the group remained silent. ACORN may or may not know much about firefighting, but it is adept in the art of grantsmanship.