The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known by the acronym ACORN, exists only in shell form, having formally disbanded on April 1. Yet whatever name(s) the radical nonprofit organizing network and its countless affiliates currently go under, the issue of its right to receive federal funds is anything but a dead letter. A court ruling several days ago ensures as much. On Wednesday, April 21, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit temporarily reinstated a congressional ban on further public funding of the scandal-ridden group. The three-judge panel in Manhattan effectively overturned a lower court order barring enforcement of the cutoff, concluding that full arguments must be heard first. And they will be this summer.
National Legal and Policy Center on many occasions has skewered ACORN and its hundreds of state and local chapters for internal mismanagement and flagrant lawbreaking in the service of its professed higher idealism. Formed in 1970, ACORN members had been accused or convicted of embezzlement, tax evasion, voter registration fraud and other offenses. A lengthy report released last July, overseen by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, concluded that ACORN has operated as a criminal enterprise. A homemade multi-city private video sting operation conducted a couple months later, which captured office employees instructing a young “couple” how to break the law, provided national embarrassment.
The controversies, taken together, caused key funding sources, most dramatically the federal government, to dry up during the fall of 2009. ACORN or its affiliates had received extensive federal support, especially the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD had showered $53 million over the previous 15 years on ACORN Housing Corporation (now known as Affordable Housing Centers for America). The Census Bureau, FEMA and the IRS, finding themselves in damage control mode, canceled partnerships with ACORN. Not long after, Congress cut off appropriations to the group for fiscal year 2010.
ACORN, aided by a hard-left legal shop, the Center for Constitutional Rights, promptly went to federal court to restore funding. The ban, the group argued, violated the constitutional prohibition on bills of attainder (i.e., punishment without trial). In U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon (Brooklyn, N.Y.), a Clinton appointee, the plaintiff found a receptive audience. Judge Gershon in December issued a preliminary injunction directing HUD, the Treasury Department and the Office of Management and Budget to disregard the appropriations law signed by President Obama. She made her decision permanent in March, arguing that it was “unmistakable that Congress determined ACORN’s guilty before defunding it.”
Yet the decisions appeared more attuned to politics than sound jurisprudence, which is why the government appealed the decision. The idea that the constitution protects the right of a highly partisan private organization, one which long has engaged in suspected or confirmed criminal activity, to receive public expenditures stretches the bounds of credibility. Rep. Issa, for one, was encouraged by the latest ruling:
I applaud the Court of Appeals for immediately addressing the effects of Judge Gershon’s attempt to legislate from the bench. Today’s action immediately restores the congressionally mandated ban on funding ACORN and its affiliates as a result of their criminal conduct and wasting of taxpayer dollars. Congress does have the constitutional right to deny an organization the benefit of taxpayer dollars.
ACORN’s center of gravity in the meantime has shifted from New Orleans to New York City in the wake of the forced resignation two years ago of founder-chief organizer Wade Rathke. It’s barely making do today. Current CEO Bertha Lewis, a longtime New York ACORN organizer, remarks: “We’re still alive. We’re limping along,” adding that the corruption controversies were like a “scarlet letter” that scared away potential donors. The group knows that restoring federal funding through the court system may be its only chance at reconstituting itself as a viable entity. Even then, the stigma will remain, regardless of the inevitable name change.