ACORN International Changes Name, Retains Intimidating Style

Even radical activists occasionally engage in re-branding, even if mainly for public relations. But a recent name change by an affiliate of the nation’s leading radical community action network may signify more than simply a desire for a new image. Wade Rathke, founder and former longtime chief organizer of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), announced a few days ago that he has changed the name of the affiliate he heads, ACORN International. The group from now on will be known as Community Organizations International. To anyone familiar with the aggressive and allegedly criminal tactics of the nonprofit empire, this looks like old wine in a new bottle, especially as a name change by ACORN itself appears imminent. The Service Employees International Union, whose Locals 100 and 880 were founded as ACORN projects, may take note.

Wade Rathke, as Union Corruption Update has reported several times, a year ago was forced out of his leadership role at ACORN, which he founded back in 1970. Rathke, by all appearances, had concealed the likely thefts during 1999-2000 by his brother, ACORN chief financial officer Dale Rathke, of nearly $950,000 in ACORN funds during 1999-2000 under the guise of loan to a political outfit, Citizens Consulting Inc. (CCI). The movement of cash was more than coincidental. Both groups are headquartered in New Orleans. Moreover, tax records reveal that the consulting group has ties to several ACORN affiliates. ACORN prides itself on its aggressive and at times violent public demonstrations. Embezzlement, however, seemed to be something new and certainly embarrassing. Rathke managed to remain at the helm of its international affiliate. The Rathke family and Tides Foundation founder Drummond Pike subsequently paid off the debt.

There are three plausible reasons for the name change of ACORN International. The first is that Wade Rathke wants to disassociate himself from his former mates. ACORN has acquired enough of a bad name lately in the wake of its probable involvement in voter registration scandals during the past few elections cycles. Currently, it’s under investigation in at least 14 states for acts allegedly committed in the 2008 cycle alone. In several states, criminal probes resulted in indictments of and guilty pleas by ACORN members. That the group’s longtime Chicago ally, Barack Obama, is now U.S. president, has raised the nonprofit network’s profile even further. Rathke may have felt too much heat. The second possible explanation is that ACORN, desperate to protect its reputation (such as it is), bluntly told Rathke he couldn’t use the name anymore. The third explanation is that ACORN itself is set to change its name. “We’ve known for many months now that the name ACORN is going to be retired,” says Marcel Reid, a former board member now being sued by the organization. “The name has been so damaged to the point where the leadership knows it simply can’t go on as it has with the ACORN label out front and center, especially after all of the reporting.”

ACORN in the meantime is busy being ACORN. The group recently threatened to slap Reid and seven other internal whistleblowers with a civil suit in an effort to silence them. In a letter dated June 11, an attorney for ACORN threatened these persons, who include two former board members, collectively known as “ACORN 8.” The dissenters’ unauthorized use of the organization’s name, the letter read, could make them liable for monetary damages and injunctive relief. The dissenters are hanging in there, however. And they’re saying it’s going to take more than a name change to clean things up. “ACORN has to be decapitated,” says Reid. “The senior staff and current national board should be dismantled. The only way to have reform is for the current leadership to be removed completely. We also need a forensic audit.” It was in fact a lawsuit filed by Reid and fellow former board member Karen Inman last October seeking financial accountability that led to their dismissal, a move they say was illegal. The pair joined forces with six other colleagues to form ACORN 8. Reid added that his group’s use of the name ACORN is no trademark infringement. “We are not going to be silenced,” he remarked.

An affiliate of the nonprofit group also is in on the action. ACORN’s Project Vote has filed suit against a former employee, Anita MonCrief. It’s no small wonder. Ms. MonCrief has testified under oath that Project Vote knowingly engaged in voter registration fraud. The suit claims that she and an unidentified accomplice gained access to private e-mails from ACORN executives, stole the group’s name, and made unauthorized purchases on an ACORN credit card. She believes the action is without merit. “ACORN is attempting to silence me, and the allegations in the lawsuit are false,” she stated.

In the end, it is ACORN’s behavior more than its name that must change. The group must cease using intimidation and deception as political tools, an operating style that should extend to handling internal dissent. The ACORN 8 and Anita MonCrief each support legislation now before Congress, the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2009 (H.R. 1507), designed to protect people in their situation. It’s a long overdue measure designed to promote public accountability. That is to say, it’s not likely ACORN – or whatever it calls itself in the future – will support it.