It's hard to imagine the scandal-plagued Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, suddenly developing a case of contrition or modesty. So the raft of reports racing across the blogosphere today that the New Orleans-based nationwide radical nonprofit network is on the brink of dissolving itself should be taken with a degree of skepticism. The move may be little more than savvy public relations. "ACORN has dissolved as a national structure of state organizations," remarked an unnamed senior official close to the organization. "Consistent with what the internal recommendations have been, each of the states are developing plans for reconstitution, independence and self-sufficiency." The source added that the splinter organizations "will be constituted under new banners and new bylaws and new governance.
Whether or not one sees this as old wine poured into a new bottle, there is little question that the ACORN brand name, which now includes some 360 affiliated organizations, has undergone major tarnishing. ACORN activists on various occasions have pursued their "anti-poverty" mission through documented voter registration fraud, embezzlement, tax evasion and rioting. In June 2008, the group's founder and CEO, Wade Rathke, resigned under pressure following revelations that he'd covered for his CFO brother Dale's embezzlement of nearly $950,000 nearly a decade earlier. This past September, a pair of conservative guerrilla undercover reporters, James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, conducted a hidden-camera video sting in ACORN offices in several cities capturing office employees giving advice on how to obtain financing for illegal business activity. The tapes were released to and broadcast on Fox New Channel and the blog site www.biggovernment.com, and gave ACORN the worst sort of publicity. The Census Bureau and the IRS, among other entities, cancelled active or planned partnerships with the nonprofit network.
In damage control mode, ACORN CEO-chief organizer Bertha Lewis, Wade Rathke's replacement, hired an outside source, former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, to conduct a review of the group's operations. Two months later, Harshbarger announced the results: There were internal control problems at ACORN, to be sure, but "no evidence" of criminal wrongdoing. Many critics were floored, and declared the audit a whitewash. They pointed to a report released in July under the supervision of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., "Is ACORN Intentionally Structured As a Criminal Enterprise?," the evidence of which pointed toward a clear "Yes." Louisiana state investigators also turned up massive evidence of fraud in a separate audit.
The reputation of ACORN, such as it ever was, is at a low point. And as any nonprofit organization knows, reputation is central to fundraising, and in the end, survival. That's why some local affiliates are spinning off independently under "respectable" names. ACORN's New York City operation, which Ms. Lewis had headed for years, for example, has shut down and formally reconstituted itself as New York Communities for Change. The group's projects, however, remain familiar: mortgage foreclosure prevention, state and local wage law enforcement, preservation of tenant rights, and resistance to state and local budget cuts – all from a radical egalitarian perspective whose implicit intent is less to lift the poor out of poverty than to inject them with a political consciousness and moblize them into action. ACORN branches in Los Angeles and Dallas also reportedly are planning to split off and operate independently.
ACORN, which has been contemplating a name change since last fall anyway, is downplaying the importance of the restructuring. "It's not like this is some kind of hostile thing," said a high-ranking person close to the organization to the blog site Politico. "This is what Fox (News Channel) has produced. National ACORN and Bertha Lewis are continuing doing their thing, but the New York flagship has been forced into this new organization." The source insisted the show will go on: "As far as the work in the communities and policy campaigns, no one will notice the difference. It's people who still believe in their basic mission of fighting for poor people." In other words, the general public should remain on guard. ACORN has been around for 40 years. Its extensive and well-funded network of radical activists is not about to sink into the sunset, especially since a longtime ally, Barack Obama, is now U.S. president.