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Political Analysis: The Troubles With ACORN


An organization that's been a target of right-wing criticism for a long time has now been hit with a major scandal. KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner explains the problems facing the social activist group ACORN.

Video unavailable. Read transcript below.

Above: ACORN official David Lagstein goes on-the-record about concerns for the organization's reputation after an undercover filmmaker caught an ACORN employee giving instructions for smuggling humans across the border. The editors discuss.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. The social activist group known as ACORN is finding out just what kind of damage a little undercover video can do. The organization, whose activities range from disaster relief to voter registration, was already a target of Republican criticism but after the release of videos showing ACORN representatives teaching two people posing as pimp and prostitute how to lie about their income and improve their business, the ACORN has really hit the fan. Federal funding has been pulled from the organization. The Census Bureau will not use ACORN representatives to help in the 2010 population count, as it had planned. And here in San Diego, the County Board of Supervisors has agreed to assist the California attorney general and the district attorney in auditing thousands of voter registrations submitted by the group for last year's election. Joining me to discuss how far the ACORN has fallen is my guest, KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner.

PENNER: Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Good morning. Well, Gloria, give us some background on this…


CAVANAUGH: …organization. What is it? What does ACORN stand for?

PENNER: Well, I think everybody’s heard of ACORN by now simply because, you know, it was sort of an under-the-radar organization except for people who really needed its help. But because of all of this scandal having to do with pimps and prostitutes on television, a lot of people are talking about it. It means the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN. It’s the nation’s largest grassroots community organization of low and moderate income people. It has over 400,000 member families. There are 1200 neighborhood chapters in about 75 cities in 40 states. So it’s big.


PENNER: And it was founded way back in 1970 in Arkansas, and it advocates for things like higher minimum wages, access to affordable housing, increased voter registration in low income communities, and actually it did conduct a ballot initiative in 2006, an important one, to help raise the minimum wage in a number of states: Ohio, Arizona, Missouri and Colorado.

CAVANAUGH: Now this organization is described by just about any – everybody as leaning to the left politically. Did President Obama ever work for ACORN?

PENNER: Well, you know, there’s a – conservative news outlets have tried to link ACORN to President Obama. He was once a community organizer so just the words ‘community organizer’ can kind of stir some people. And they claim that Obama was very closely tied to it in the 1990s. What we’ve been able to understand and uncover from various reports is that Obama and a team of Chicago attorneys won a 1995 lawsuit, you know, Obama’s a lawyer and he was representing them at that point and the lawsuit forced the state of Illinois to implement the federal Motor Voter Bill. You remember that registration when you sign up for your driver’s license. But conservatives say that Obama’s ACORN connection is far more extensive. And it is true that the organization mobilized a get out the vote effort to support President Obama’s presidential bid before he was president last year, but critics say that it was tainted when nearly a third of the 1.3 million voters the group registered were rejected. And, you know, the most famous rejected registration was somebody named Mickey Mouse.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, yeah. So even before these videos surfaced, there was also a lot – there was already a lot of criticism from the right…


CAVANAUGH: …against ACORN. Is it largely because of that voter registration drive?

PENNER: Well, the group definitely has Democratic leanings, and its political work would make it a target for Republicans. As I said, the political action group for ACORN endorsed President Obama, and his campaign actually paid an ACORN subsidiary over $800,000.00 to help get out the vote. And last year it came under fire from Republicans after some of its employees submitted those false…


PENNER: …registration forms I was talking about.

CAVANAUGH: So tell us, for the people who haven’t seen the videos that have surfaced, tell us a little bit about what happens in them and why this has been such a scandal.

PENNER: Well, what you see are two ACORN workers. First of all, these videos were made in four different cities, and they were made by undercover, conservative filmmakers. And those filmmakers just went out and independently pretended that they were a pimp and a prostitute and they were asking ACORN for a variety of help, everything from tax help to finding a home. In one case, finding a place where the so-called prostitute could conduct her business. So we see, for example, in National City, two ACORN workers apparently advising the couple and the content is pretty rangy. I mean, we’re talking about smuggling prostitutes across the border, young girls across the border, a dozen of them, and that’s the kind of thing whereby immediately your ears perk up and you wonder what’s going on. The 37 clip – second clip that was aired identified the ACORN employee in San Diego and that employee was answering questions about how to get 12 young girls across the Mexican border. And then later there was a 15-second long clip that showed the same ACORN employee asking the woman how much her services cost.


PENNER: So some people might consider that soliciting.

CAVANAUGH: Right. So what’s been the reaction to that video and a couple of the other videos that have surfaced with ACORN employees basically taking these people who are posing as pimp and prostitute and, you know, giving them advice about how to pay income taxes and hide income and all of that?

PENNER: Well, they might have given them some advice but in the case of the alleged pimp and prostitute trying to get assistance from ACORN in this last one, I think the communication might have been interpreted as, you know, we can’t give that kind of assistance.


PENNER: It might have been. But it all depends on the eye of the beholder, I think. Interesting thing, the filmmaker, James O’Keefe, who’s 25, he’s a Rutgers University grad student, and his friend 20-year-old Hannah Giles, they actually could get into lots of trouble because having aired this video without permission of the ACORN employees, in the state of Maryland is an offense. And they actually, or at least the lead person in that, James O’Keefe, theoretically could be charged with a felony and could get five years in jail.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting.

PENNER: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: So what has been the reaction to these videos?

PENNER: Well, it depends who it comes from.


PENNER: Right? Okay. The – Ron Nehring’s the chairman of the Republican Party, he wanted letters sent to District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis and Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler requesting an audit of voter registration cards, and it looks like he’s probably going to get that because there has been a move on to authenticate the voter registration cards that ACORN developed during the 2008…

CAVANAUGH: Let me stop you there, if I can, Gloria, because what is the link between the ACORN representatives giving this advice, if, indeed, they did to these questionable people, and the voter registration? Is there a link or is it just because it’s all under the ACORN rubric?

PENNER: Exactly, and there’s a lot under the ACORN rubric. ACORN has political action committees, it has housing committees, it has a variety of groups and one of them is voter registration. So that’s really what it is. But apparently it’s the recent news stories because of these videos that sort of catapulted a lot of people into action, including the Republican Party. I mean, not only is it the chair of the California Republican Party but also the chair of San Diego County Republican Party, Tony Krvaric. He actually called ACORN a corrupt organization that has been convicted of past registration fraud in other states. And so – And then we have Darrell Issa. Darrell Issa, a Republican congressman from San Diego, and he has requested that congress cut any federal funds that it gives to ACORN, and just the amount of those funds is in question. He says it’s something like $53 million and others say it’s really maybe just a couple of million dollars. But it looks like right now the House of Representatives and the Senate have, in a kind of lopsided vote, said, all right, let’s cut off those funds to ACORN. So ACORN’s going to lose a lot of money. And then, of course, there is the president. The president, I think, was on this past weekend talking about what he saw on the video being ‘inappropriate and deserves to be investigated.’ He didn’t say who should investigate but he said there should be an investigation. And then when he was questioned a little more thoroughly, he did say it’s not a major national issue that he pays close attention to, it’s not something that he’s followed closely, and he doesn’t even think that ACORN is getting a whole lot of federal money.

CAVANAUGH: Well, one of the big victories for critics of ACORN is the fact that the Census Bureau has pulled their participation in the 2010 census because I remember hearing a great deal of criticism about ACORN being involved before this scandal, involved in taking that count.

PENNER: That’s right. So this really struck home and they did decide, the Census Bureau, on Friday not to let the organization help with the upcoming consensus (sic). I have a feeling that ACORN is going to shrink. I don’t think it’s going to go away, I think it’s going to shrink and recover and recoup and, hopefully, learn something about this. Probably needs a lot more training for its representatives in the field.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, I would say you’re right about that. Let me ask you, since ACORN and other people that support the organization says that ACORN does not get a lot of federal funding, where does it get its money from?

PENNER: Oh, a variety of sources. There are individuals, of course, there is the Service Employees International union gave them more than $4 million to ACORN, according to a national Public Radio report from last year. It gave the $4 million in the year 2006-2007. It wasn’t easy to come up with a lot of the figures but what I did come up with is that some liberal groups such as the Bowman Family Foundation gave $350,000, George Soros’ Open Society Institute gave $300,000, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, $1.8 million. They’ve had some large, mainstream contributors like JPMorgan Chase, $2.4 million, the Bank of America—the Bank of America’s under a little fire itself now—the charitable foundation there gave $1.4 million. Citigroup—I’m amazed it could afford it—but it gave $1.5 million, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, very well known, $1.4 million, the Ford Foundation, $1.3 million, foundations affiliated with the late founder of United Parcel Service, a combined $6.4 million, and then, of course, there are individuals.

CAVANAUGH: So considering this scandal, one might imagine that some of those private contributions might shrink a bit, and I’m wondering if ACORN, as you say, does shrink as an organization, who gets hurt? I mean, what kind of programs suffer?

PENNER: What suffers are the low and middle income people that did go to ACORN for all kinds of help, help with taxes, help with housing, help with just living their lives because many of them truly were underserved and had no other representatives and ACORN acted as a social service agency in – as well as a political activist group for low and medium income people.

CAVANAUGH: And in the short time we have left, Gloria, I forgot to ask you, what does ACORN say in its defense?

PENNER: ACORN has said a number of things. You know, at first it completely denied everything and then after awhile it did admit that it was clear that there was a problem with the training of their workers. They, however, say that, you know, they’re going to continue on, that perhaps a handful of employees created a problem, especially in the voter registration to boost their pay.


PENNER: Yeah, but other than that, I think ACORN is determined to stay.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

PENNER: You’re welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Gloria Penner is KPBS political correspondent and host of Editors Roundtable and San Diego Week. You can read her weekly blog, Political Fix, on our website at, and you can continue this conversation online, Stay with us for hour two of These Days on KPBS.

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