Politics & Policy

Acorn & The Money Tree

Taxpayer money helps fund voter fraud.

Reports of voter-registration fraud are tiresomely commonplace. From the 6,000 ineligible felons listed on Colorado’s voter rolls, to the cocaine offered in exchange for registrations from Mary Poppins and Dick Tracy in Ohio, this year’s swing states have already seen unprecedentedly corrupt get-out-the-vote efforts.

#ad#This is especially true in Florida, where the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is the subject of a state investigation for potentially criminal voter-registration activity.

THE MONEY TREE

Although ACORN’s projects run a wide gamut, the group claims as its purpose helping low- and middle-income Americans–through initiatives ranging from improving urban public schools, to providing counseling on how to avoid “predatory lending,” to increasing the availability of “affordable housing.” Most of these programs are conducted locally, by state-level ACORN organizations–which are often set up as 501(c)3 nonprofit entities distinct from the national ACORN umbrella, a 501(c)4 lobbying organization. Sounds benign enough–except that, according to Bob Huberty, executive vice president of the Capital Research Center, these tax-exempt 501(c)3s “have no reason for existence other than to get grants from the government and foundations.” They are, essentially, an ACORN front for asking Uncle Sam to subsidize political activity.

Ask ACORN does–and it definitely receives. Take, for example, the most recent tax information from one of ACORN’s subsidiary nonprofits: the ACORN Housing Corporation, Inc., based out of the organization’s national headquarters in New Orleans. For the tax year beginning July 1, 2002, and ending June 30, 2003, ACORN Housing Corp.’s 990 Form shows a total of $1,710,203 received in government grants (the year before, the total was $1,977,306).

The nominal purpose of those millions is to “provide low rent housing & loan counseling services to low income individuals.” But if the government is funding the actual, legitimate work of ACORN at the local 501(c)3 level, it means that the national lobbying organization can dedicate more of its unrestricted resources to electioneering. Furthermore, explains Craig Garthwaite, director of research at the Employment Policies Institute, “The funding is not only fungible in that if they receive money for X, they can spend more on Y.” He cites one particular example of money-rerouting malfeasance: the crooked dealings surrounding an AmeriCorps grant in 1996. According to an EPI study, when the ACORN Housing Corp. applied for the grant, they denied any connections to the main ACORN lobbying group (the grant is not for political advocacy). But the AmeriCorps inspector general discovered that “not only was AHC created by ACORN, engaged in numerous transactions with one another, and sharing staff and office space–but it utilized the AmeriCorps grant to increase ACORN membership, a violation of federal guidelines.” (ACORN charges membership dues, much as labor unions do; thus, by exploiting AmeriCorps funding to inflate its membership rolls, ACORN used government resources to bring in even more money–money with no restrictions on its political use.)

A SHADY PAST . . .

Given that federal funding is used “flexibly” within the ACORN empire, what kind of return is the government getting on its investment? Historically, failed 1960s-style leftism, intimidation and rabble-rousing, and questionable business practices–and hypocrisy. The EPI study documents ACORN’s involvement in an $850,000 labor-union embezzlement scheme in the late 1990s; in 2003, ACORN was found to have violated the National Labor Relations Act and was ordered to “rehire and pay restitution to employees terminated for attempting to form a union.” (ACORN’s in-house union-busting starkly contradicts its prescriptions for private-sector unionization, and is especially two-faced considering that ACORN’s chief organizer and co-founder–Wade Rathke–is also the chief organizer of Local 100 of the Service Employees International Union in New Orleans.)

ACORN’s hypocrisy also extends to its stand on the minimum wage. While it has often attempted to force minimum-wage increases on private businesses through ballot initiatives and local ordinances, ACORN tried to exempt itself from California’s minimum-wage requirements. According to EPI, “ACORN argued that being forced to pay higher wages would mean that they would hire fewer employees–the very dilemma faced by businesses. Incredibly, ACORN stated that paying its employees a lower wage would allow them to be more sympathetic to the low- and moderate-income families they were attempting to help. ACORN argued that abiding by the state minimum wage would limit their ability to promote their agenda and would therefore be a violation of their First Amendment rights.”

. . . AND A DARKER PRESENT

Fittingly, wage increases are the centerpiece of ACORN’s current woes. This year, Florida’s state organization is purportedly helping the indigent by pushing for a ballot initiative that would inflate the state’s minimum wage. To oversee the campaign to make Amendment 5 binding law, Florida ACORN spawned the PAC Floridians For All.

Unfortunately, Floridians For All doesn’t seem concerned with fair voting for all. In order to put a measure on the Florida ballot, one must collect 500,000 signatures; the catch, however, is that those signatures must belong to men and women registered to vote in Florida at the time they sign the petition forms. So Floridians For All, in the process of collecting signatures statewide, had unsuspecting citizens fill out voter-registration paperwork along with the ballot-initiative petition forms. Mark Wilson, vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and executive director of VoteSmartFlorida.org, explains: “In Florida, you must be a registered voter to sign a petition. But you’re not registered to vote in Florida until a county supervisor runs you through the computer and says you are.” So, says Wilson, Floridians For All “would turn in the voter registrations they’d collected on, say, a Monday, and then hold on to the accompanying petition forms for a couple of weeks before turning them in–so that by the time the petition forms hit the system, it looked like they belonged to people who had already registered to vote.” According to Wilson, some petition forms were fraudulently post-dated by ACORN workers; he adds, however, that “they didn’t even have to post-date them–handing them in late did the trick in making it look like they belonged to people who were properly registered.”

Florida ACORN also registered thousands of felons–who, under Florida law, are ineligible to vote. They can, technically, apply for a restoration of civil rights; according to former Florida ACORN worker Mac Stuart–who has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against his ex-employer–ACORN exploited this hope in order to get felons to sign voter-registration cards. “We’d go up to them and say, ‘Want your civil rights restored?’ That’s the pitch we were using. But those forms are not worth the paper they’re printed on–there hasn’t been any instance of clemency under the last two governors,” Stuart claims. The forms became doubly worthless after Florida ACORN was through with them: “The restoration-of-civil-rights forms would go into the garbage,” Stuart says. The voter-registration forms, however, were kept safe–as they were worth much more.

That’s because each registration played a valuable part in Floridians For All’s alleged pay-per-voter scheme. Stuart claims that Florida ACORN paid workers $2 for each voter registration they collected, and claims he has receipts to prove it. While it is permissible to pay an individual to register voters, “paying workers per registration,” explains EPI spokesman Mike Burita, “is a felony in Florida–counted on a per-violation basis–so there could be thousands of crimes here.”

A TANGLED WEB

Stuart’s accusations suggest a process and cycle of kickbacks: “We’d go through colleges, malls, shopping strips, wherever there were people,” collecting voter registrations. At the end of each week, he claims, “you made copies of the voter-registration forms–which was illegal. Once a form is signed, it’s illegal to make copies of it…. From there, we’d send the copies to Project Vote [a national ACORN voter-registration arm, and yet another sub-group] in Brooklyn, and then Project Vote would send it to America’s Families United [an independent 527 organization in Washington, D.C.].” In turn, AFU would send money back to Project Vote–initially $3.75 per voter registration, later increased to $4.10, according to Stuart.

“Project Vote would send me e-mails,” claims Stuart, “with an allocation saying, ‘We got X amount of money from America’s Families United for Y number of cards.’” He says that Project Vote would then forward that money to Citizens Consulting, Inc., headquartered out of the same national ACORN building in New Orleans. (Coincidentally, CCI is, according to Garthwaite, run by the brother of ACORN head Wade Rathke.)

Stuart claims that CCI would then write a check to ACORN’s Miami account–from which he would distribute the standard $2 per registration to Florida ACORN workers. Because Stuart, at the behest of ACORN, says he gave registration-gatherers only $2 per card–when America’s Families United was sending $3.75 (and then $4.10) to ACORN for each voter registration obtained–every photocopied voter registration submitted earned ACORN a net profit of $1.75 (later $2.10) per registration.

NRO’s requests for a comment in response to Stuart’s allegations went unanswered. In other media, however, ACORN has dismissed the charges, blaming the individual whistleblower for any wrongdoing. This internal e-mail, however–in which Florida ACORN head organizer Brian Ketterning says Stuart is dangerous, “as he knows too much”–suggests that ACORN may, in fact, have something damaging to hide.

NONPARTISAN?

Granted, Amendment 5 did have other, non-monetary purposes. While Ketterning acquired funding for Floridians For All on the explicit promise that it was promoting a nonpartisan minimum-wage ballot initiative, a copy of Floridians For All’s own campaign plan indicates otherwise.

The first paragraph of the plan reads:

A Florida constitutional amendment initiative to create a minimum wage of $6.15 with indexing will help defeat George W. Bush and other Republicans by increasing Democratic turnout in a close election, will deliver wage gains to at least 300,000 Floridians, and will catalyze the construction of permanent progressive political infrastructure that will help redirect Florida politics in a more progressive, Democratic direction

(emphasis added).

Later:

Given that turnout is down when the economy is bad, since our voters are more discouraged, the need for a exciting ballot initiative strategy that works to address the needs of the most economically needy, and also likely Democratic voters, is a fundamental part of a winning strategy in Florida.

Not exactly a nonpartisan effort prioritizing the minimum wage.

Perhaps this explains the $250,000, $25,000, and another $25,000 in donations to Floridians For All from the National Education Association, MoveOn.org, and SEIU, respectively, as well as Nancy Pelosi’s awareness efforts in Floridians For All’s behalf. (Interestingly enough, Floridians For All also received $150,000 from the Tides Foundation–on whose board of directors Wade Rathke serves, and to which Teresa Heinz Kerry and her foundation contribute.) Hundreds of thousands of dollars from national left-leaning organizations, and the attentions of the House Minority Leader, seem out of place for an ordinary state ballot initiative–out of place, that is, until you realize that Floridians For All and Florida ACORN do not consider the minimum wage their main priority. It makes much more sense for MoveOn.org, the NEA, SEIU, and Nancy Pelosi to turn out for a massive effort to defeat George W. Bush in Florida–to avenge 2000, and secure one of 2004’s most-watched swing states.

In the course of its crusade to defeat the president and establish a Democratic stronghold, ACORN faces remarkable allegations: taking license with its internal bookkeeping; gathering and filing illegitimate petition forms; forging signatures; destroying voter-registration applications and other official documents entrusted to its care; profiting from illegal pay-per-vote schemes; lying to potential donors; abusing a state constitution for national-level partisan exploits; vilifying conscientious employees; and disenfranchising hundreds, and possibly thousands, of citizens.

And–if it’s all true–that’s just in Florida, itself only a small part of ACORN’s antics nationwide.

And those antics are supported by Uncle Sam’s dime.

Meghan Clyne is an NR associate editor.

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