Economy & Budget

ACORN: Labor’s Ally Is a Bad Seed

One of Big Labor’s chief allies in promoting last November’s several state ballot initiatives to hike minimum wage rates was the far-left activist group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The group claims that it “helped more … than 540,000 low-income and minority people register to vote in 2006.” The minimum-wage initiatives were part of an ACORN strategy to bring out the Democrats’ base by rallying support around the issue.

But some ACORN activists may have committed election fraud. In Missouri, ACORN and its union allies credit the minimum-wage issue with helping put Democrat Claire McCaskill over the top in her challenge to Republican incumbent Sen. Jim Talent. ACORN’s actions have raised eyebrows—and produced federal indictments.

Show Me the Fraud

St. Louis election officials received so many fraudulent voter registration cards from ACORN that they sent letters to 5,000 registrants, asking the recipients to contact them, John Fund reported in the Wall Street Journal. Fewer than 40 of the suspect registrants responded.

The city’s elections director, Scott Leiendecker, said some registration cards appeared to be signed by the same person, and some names appeared to be copied straight out of the phone book. For example, Robert S. Rothschild, Jr. and his wife are listed in the white pages as Sandy and Susan Rothschild. They received a letter from the county election board notifying them of their new voter registration as Sandy and Susan Rothschild—each female and each having the same birth date. “Is someone really going to go to our precinct and try to vote? I doubt it very much,” Rothschild told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Or is this just some sloppy way [for an ACORN worker] to make it appear that they’re really doing the work they’re hired to do?”

Leiendecker asks a similar question. “It’s one of two things,” he told the Post-Dispatch. “ACORN needs to look at themselves internally, and their management practices. Something is not clicking. Either that or this group is trying to commit fraud.”

ACORN founder Wade Rathke responded to the Missouri findings by calling the election officials “slop buckets” and accusing them of having “broken the law in trying to discourage new voters illegally.”

Nonsense, say the officials. “We met twice with ACORN before their drive, but our requests completely fell by the wayside,” St. Louis Deputy Elections Director Matt Potter, a Democrat, told Fund.

Election officials in Kansas City had similar complaints about voter registrations turned in by ACORN. In October, Kansas City’s Republican elections director, Ray James, and his Democratic counterpart, Sharon Turner Buie, said that more than 15,000 registrations were “questionable” for reasons such as duplicates, questionable and unreadable information, or names, addresses and Social Security numbers that don’t match actual records, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune.

ACORN claims that the fraudulent registrations were perpetrated by some “temporary workers” whom ACORN caught and fired, and that it brought the matter to the attention of authorities. But Kansas City Board of Elections Chairman Melodie Powell, a Republican, says that these claims are “seriously misleading” and that ACORN helped identify the perpetrators only after her staff took the evidence to the FBI.

On November 2, a federal grand jury in Kansas City indicted four ACORN employees for “knowingly and willingly” submitting false information to election authorities. The four allegedly submitted 15,000 fraudulent voter registration forms—including ones with fake names, signatures or addresses. The charge has maximum penalties of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

ACORN workers have been convicted of election-related offenses in Wisconsin and Colorado, and investigations have been launched in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee.

“There’s no quality control on purpose, no checks and balances,” Nate Toler, an ACORN organizer, told the Journal’s Fund. “The internal motto is ‘We don’t care if it’s a lie, just so long as it stirs up the conversation.’” He added, “I may have my head chopped off for telling the truth.”

Loretta Barton, a former ACORN organizer from Dayton, Ohio, tells a similar tale and says that “all ACORN wanted from registration drives was results.”

And what results! In 2004, a worker for an Ohio ACORN affiliate was given crack cocaine in exchange for fraudulent registrations, which included the underage, the deceased and names like Mary Poppins, Dick Tracy and Jive Turkey.

ACORN claims that its errors are the result of honest mistakes. But if that’s the case, they reveal a level of incompetence that is plain jaw-dropping. For example, the Kansas City elections office received seven applications signed by the same person during a period of only four days, August 29-31, reported TV station KMBC. ACORN member Todd Elkins, who was at the elections office on October 24, told KMBC reporter Michael Mahoney that it was possible that the person signing was just friendly, “and maybe he kept coming up to our voting canvassers and just signing up.” “Seven times?” asked Mahoney. “I’m saying it’s a possibility,” responded Elkins.

In another case, Kansas City election officials sent a letter to a voter requesting more information about his registration card. His wife called back saying that he had been deceased for 27 years.

And Jackson County elections board director Charlene Davis, whose region includes parts of Kansas City, showed KMBC’s Mahoney 11 voter applications signed by the same 19-year-old woman. “But they’re all signed by her, the same person,” said Davis. “Incredible, isn’t it?”

Taxpayers Foot the Bill

This is bad enough. But particularly galling is ACORN’s receipt of taxpayer funds and its hypocritical refusal to practice what it preaches.

ACORN is a beneficiary of federal government largess. During 2003-2004, it received $2.6 million in federal grants to support its housing programs. But its political activism has led Republican lawmakers to forbid Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from funding ACORN’s voter registration drives. ACORN has a history of using federal grants to subsidize its political activities. According to the Wall Street Journal, a 1994 grant to the ACORN Housing Corp. from the federal volunteer agency AmeriCorps was terminated after an inspector general found that ACORN had used AmeriCorps volunteers for political purposes.

Despite these setbacks, ACORN has lobbied for access to more federal funds and it is likely to ask more of the Democrat-controlled Congress. In 2005, it actually helped convince the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to pass a bill creating an “affordable housing trust fund,” which would allocate up to 5% of profits generated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to groups like ACORN to provide affordable housing. The bill went nowhere in the Senate, but it is likely to be reintroduced in the new Congress. Given its history, it’s not unreasonable to expect ACORN to use these funds to subsidize its ongoing political activities. Even with legal and accounting controls, money is always fungible.

Unhappy Employees

ACORN may champion worker rights, but it’s a lousy employer. In 2003, the National Labor Relations Board ordered ACORN to rehire and pay restitution to three employees it fired for trying to join a union. Loretta Barton, the former ACORN Dayton organizer, has filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against ACORN. She told Fund, “We were told, ‘if you get a union, you won’t have a job.’”

In 2006, ACORN had workers in Missouri sign contracts stating that they would be “working up to 80 hours over seven days of work.”

And the group often pays workers below the minimum wage levels for which it lobbies. For example, in 1995, ACORN unsuccessfully sued the state of California to be exempt from the minimum wage, because, it claimed, “the more that ACORN must pay each individual outreach worker … the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire.” (Eureka!) And during its successful campaign for a $9.50 minimum wage for Santa Fe, N.M.—the highest in the nation—ACORN paid its organizers $25,000 a year, or $8.90 an hour.

“We pay as much as we can,” says Rathke. “If people can get more elsewhere, we wish them well.”

Now there’s someone who understands the free-market system.

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