ACORN is not dissolving. But some of its local affiliates, in an effort to suggest they’re cutting ties with the organization, are giving themselves new names. The reason is money: ACORN cites a string of “vicious right-wing attacks” — and here I doff the purple pimp hat to James O’Keefe — that have made it hard for them to shake down their usual banker benefactors and nonprofit patrons.
This is nothing new. The national organization itself was considering a name change back in November, according to this internal memo, in which ACORN’s leaders cite one single overriding concern: money. “Raising money is much harder now, if we do it under the name ACORN,” the memo says. “Some foundations are still will [sic] to fund us, more are not.”
ACORN isn’t the first gang of riff-raff to discover that there’s lots of money to be made at the intersection of politics and poverty — that was part of the original mafia’s business model, too — but you really have to dig into the organization’s workings, its hundreds of bank accounts, its shell organizations and affiliates, its millions of dollars in cash and real estate, its bank stock, and its consulting company, to appreciate exactly how central money-making is to ACORN. And these folks are good at making money. Jamie Dimon, the JPMorgan Chase CEO identified by the New York Times as “Obama’s favorite banker,” saw his bank’s charitable foundation give ACORN $1 million in 2007 alone, not counting additional grants to something called the “ACORN Institute.” ACORN’s housing operations have helped themselves to a generous slice of the profits generated by all that subprime slime, marketing loans to low-income borrowers. Bank of America, Citigroup — many names from the rogue’s gallery of TARP-bailout recipients — have contributed to the ACORN gravy train.
Congressional investigators were surprised to learn that much of ACORN is not even legally a nonprofit: It pays corporate income taxes, though investigators say that it seems to have tried to dodge state taxes by claiming to be a tax-exempt organization. And the churn between ACORN’s nonprofit, for-profit, and political-advocacy arms is substantial. There’s a lot of cash flying around in ACORN’s world: Louisiana’s Democratic attorney general, David Caldwell, estimates that the organization has at least $20 million in cash and $10 million worth of real estate.
The Louisiana prosecutors investigating ACORN also suggest that there are really three national ACORN factions — New York City, Washington, and New Orleans — with national CEO Bertha Lewis, a product of the New York faction, having “forcefully taken control over all ACORN accounts and . . . trying to consolidate whatever assets exist.” If New York ACORN is getting territorial about the checkbook — even as its tainted brand imperils the fundraising efforts of local chapters — you can bet that has played a role in locals’ decisions to assert their independence.
There’s some precedent for these ACORN name games. The Service Employees International Union, which is in effect a branch of ACORN, started to get itchy after the O’Keefe investigations came out. Two SEIU locals were directly run by ACORN: Local 100 and Local 880. Local 100, feeling the PR heat, decided to disaffiliate from SEIU and join the United Labor Unions instead. But Rep. Darrell Issa’s congressional report casts some doubt on how meaningful an action that was: “Local 100’s website still displays the SEIU logo . . . and [Local 100] is still listed on the SEIU website as an affiliate, even though it has not registered as a corporation with the State of Louisiana. In fact, according to the Louisiana Secretary of State, the United Labor Unions, the union that Local 100 supposedly returned to, had its charter revoked in 1998. . . . Based on tax records, it appears that Local 100 is still a member of SEIU and ACORN.” That’s a congressional report, not some kid in a pimp suit with a hidden camera.
If you want to see whether ACORN is really changing its ways, check to see whether the signatories to those local ACORN bank accounts are changing. When it comes to ACORN, the money is the organization, and the name is just the name.
ACORN in Brooklyn was renamed New York Communities for Change. This move came after the O’Keefe videos inspired an investigation by Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes. The group also is tied to an absentee-ballot-fraud case and an investigation into violations of New York campaign-finance laws. A good time for a change, then. But the change is purely cosmetic: Even the board members are the same, according to the New York Post. You can bet the bank balances have been maintained every bit as carefully as the makeup of the management.
Of all the frauds that ACORN has been implicated in, none has been so transparent as the fraudulent reinvention now under way.
– Kevin Williamson is a deputy managing editor of National Review.