Coming off the news we covered last Friday that the Census Bureau was severing ties with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now for the 2010 census, the Senate yesterday voted overwhelmingly to prohibit Housing and Urban Development grants from going to the group, which bills itself as “the nation's largest community organization of low and moderate income families."
Eighty-three senators voted for an amendment from Sen. Mike Johanns, R-Neb., to ban the funds, with seven senators voting against the amendment and nine not voting.
Johanns noted that ACORN is under investigation for voter registration fraud in several states, and also mentioned recent videos from two young conservative journalists posing as a pimp and a prostitute and secretly videotaping ACORN employees who seeming offer to help them secure housing as well as other advice. The tapes were first posted on Biggovernment.com and received much coverage on Fox News Channel.
After tapes from the Baltimore and Washington, DC, ACORN offices became the "tipping point" for the Census Bureau last week, yesterday a new undercover film emerged from an ACORN office in New York City.
Prompted by the videos and recent arrest warrants issued in Florida for ACORN employees who allegedly falsified voter applications, today Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., the ranking Republican on the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, wrote to the committee chairman, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and the Department of Housing and Urban Development inspector general Kenneth Donohue calling for "an immediate and thorough investigation" into ACORN's activities.
"Last night’s vote served as a resounding rebuke on behalf of American taxpayers regarding the activities of ACORN,” said Shelby in a statement. "While this vote is important, it is limited in scope and we must know more. It is imperative that we proceed immediately to investigate what appears to be ACORN’s stunning disregard for the law and abuse of taxpayer funds. Such an investigation would serve as the basis for determining not only whether ACORN is worthy of receiving other federal funds this year, but ever again.”
Shelby said the recent controversies "add to numerous other reported issues within the organization over many years including: embezzlement of nearly one million dollars by the brother of the organization’s founder; charges of additional voter registration fraud in other states; and the stripping of federal grants following findings that ACORN used federal money to promote legislation."
In a statement on Saturday, ACORN's chief organizer Bertha Lewis said the "relentless attacks on ACORN's members, its staff and the policies and positions we promote are unprecedented."
Lewis said Fox was "attempt(ing) to destroy the largest community organization of Black, Latino, poor and working families in the country. It is not coincidence that the most recent attacks have been launched just when health care reform is gaining traction. It is clear they've had these tapes for months. We are their Willy Horton for 2009. We are the boogeyman for the right-wing and its echo chambers. If ACORN did not exist, the right-wing would have needed to create us in order to achieve their agenda, their missions, their ideal, retrograde America."
Lewis said that she "cannot and I will not defend the actions of the workers depicted in the video, who have since been terminated. But it is clear that the videos are doctored, edited, and in no way the result of the fabricated story being portrayed…"
She lauded ACORN's work helping hundreds of thousands of African-American and Latino voters register to vote and get to the polls, preparing, since 2004, approximately 150,000 free tax returns, and helping thousands of Americans avoid foreclosure.
In March, the Senate voted 53-43 against an amendment from Sen. David Vitter, R-Louisiana, to ban funds under the Edward M. Kennedy National Service Act from going to ACORN.
The White House had no immediate comment on the Senate vote.
Opponents of the president's have long attempted to tie ACORN's history of malfeasance to President Obama himself.
Last year, the Obama campaign had paid an ACORN-affiliated consulting firm, Citizens Services Inc., $832,598 for “staging, sound, lighting” and advance work, but later amended its August and September Federal Election Commission reports http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/11/us/politics/11acorn.html to reflect that the money was for help in get-out-the-vote efforts. Amending FEC returns is not unusual, but the campaign of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., insinuated that the Obama campaign was trying to hide the relationship.
McCain attempted to make a campaign issue of the rampant voter registration fraud tied to ACORN and his campaign demanded that then-Sen. Obama disclose his full relationship to the group.
"First of all, my relationship to ACORN is pretty straightforward," the now-president said, when asked last October about McCain's charges by ABC News. "It's probably 13 years ago when I was still practicing law, I represented ACORN and my partner in that representation was the US Justice Department in having Illinois implement what was called the 'Motor Voter' law, to make sure that people could go to DMV’s and drivers’ license facilities to get registered.. It wasn’t being implemented. That was my relationship and is my relationship to ACORN.
"There is an ACORN organization in Chicago," Obama continued. "They have been active. As an elected official, I've had interactions with them. But they are not advising our campaign. We've got the best voter registration and turnout and volunteer operation in politics right now and we don’t need ACORN’s help.
“My understanding in terms of the voter fraud, because having run a voter registration drive, I know how problems arise, this is typically a situation where ACORN probably paid people to get registrations and these folks, not wanting to actually register people because that's actually hard work, just went into a phone book or made up names and submitted
false registrations to get paid," Obama said. "So there's been fraud perpetrated probably on ACORN if they paid these individuals and they actually didn’t do registrations.”
"But this isn't a situation where there's actually people who are going to try to vote 'cause these are phony names," Obama said. "And, it's doubtful (Dallas Cowboys quarterback) Tony Romo" — whose name had been fraudulently submitted — "is gonna show up in Ohio to vote. So this is another one of these distractions that gets stirred up in the course of a campaign.
"But what I want to make sure of, is that this is not used as an excuse for the kind of voter suppression strategies and tactics that we've seen in the past. Let’s just make sure everybody is voting, everybody’s registered. Let's make sure that everybody’s doing it in a lawful way."
This came after the Obama campaign inaccurately claimed on its "Fight the Smears" website that "Barack was never an ACORN trainer and never worked for ACORN in any other capacity.” ACORN spokesman Lewis Goldberg told the New York Times that Obama conducted two unpaid leadership training sessions for ACORN’s Chicago affiliate in the late 1990s; the campaign updated the "smear" rebuttal to assert that "ACORN never hired Obama as a trainer, organizer, or any type of employee.” (Key word: hired.)
Confusing matters even further were false charges and baseless insinuations from the McCain camp, with campaign manager Rick Davis urging reporters to ask Obama of the ACORN training sessions, “What were you teaching them? Were you teaching them how to evade the law?” and incorrectly asserting that when Obama represented ACORN he was standing “against the State of Illinois and the federal government.”
Actually, the Justice Department was a co-plaintiff with ACORN in the suit.
ACORN's attorneys wrote to Fox News CEO Roger Ailes suggesting that the tapes have been improperly doctored. "It is very clear that the questions being asked are a voiceover, placed on the tape by the film maker," wrote attorney Arthur Schwartz. "It is ACORN’s position, at this time, that the videotape is doctored and that the voiceovers change the real dialog. We demand, as counsel to ACORN, that FOX cease publication of these tapes unless it can produce proof that the conversations actually took place."
In another letter, Schwartz asserts that "the filming and broadcast of the conversations at the Baltimore ACORN offices violates" Maryland law, "which makes it unlawful to wilfully intercept, endeavor to intercept, or procure any other person to intercept any oral conversation unless all parties to the communication consent."