Report Says ACORN Didn't Commit Voter Fraud or Misuse Federal Funding

Wednesday, 30 December 2009 07:20 By Mary Susan Littlepage, t r u t h o u t | Report | name.

Report Says ACORN Didn
(Image: Troy Page / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: Gregor Bug, Tyler Haglund)

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) did not commit voter fraud, and it didn't misuse federal funding in the last five years, according to a recently released report prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a nonpartisan investigational arm of Congress.

Among its findings, CRS also reported that recently enacted federal legislation to prohibit funding to ACORN raises significant constitutional concerns. The report said courts "may have a sufficient basis" to conclude that the legislation "violates the prohibition against bills of attainder." Also, concerning recent "sting" operations related to ACORN, although state laws vary, two states, Maryland and California, "appear to ban private recording of face to face conversations absent the consent of all the participants," the report said.

The CRS report was requested by House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Michigan) and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank in September.

"There were no instances of individuals who were allegedly registered to vote improperly by ACORN or its employees and who were reported attempting to vote at the polls," the CRS report states.

This report came on the heels of another report that also cleared ACORN of wrongdoing. That outside report indicated ACORN doesn't show a pattern of intentional and illegal behavior in undercover videos that conservatives shot of ACORN staffers. That's according to an independent, two-month review of ACORN released in early December by Scott Harshbarger, senior counsel at Proskauer Rose and former Massachusetts attorney general. Proskauer Rose is a law firm that led the independent review of ACORN at the behest of its senior officials. This review shows the independent analysis requested by ACORN on September 21 in the wake of the video controversies, significant negative news coverage and lost support among some funders, allies and supporters.

Videos of ACORN staffers advising a woman (Hannah Giles) acting as a prostitute and a man (James O'Keefe) as a boyfriend led to much criticism. In the undercover videos, the pair plans to buy a house for use as a brothel, pretends to seek assistance with illegal matters such as prostitution and human trafficking and gets advice from a few ACORN employees. The two filmed their meetings with a hidden camera at ACORN offices, further igniting the Republicans' war against ACORN. The videographers visited ACORN or ACORN Housing offices in Baltimore, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Miami, Philadelphia, San Bernardino, San Diego and Washington, DC.

The CRS report was compiled by information research specialist Meredith Peterson; law librarian Julia Taylor; senior specialist in American public law Charles Doyle, information research specialist Julius Jefferson and legislative attorney Kenneth Thomas.

Founded in 1970, ACORN is the largest grassroots community organization of low- and moderate-income people, with more than 400,000 member families organized into more than 1,200 neighborhood chapters in about 75 cities across the country. The national organization is based in Washington, DC, and deals with finances and governance. It also coordinates national issues-based campaigns and voter registration drives.

ACORN evolved from a grassroots, community-based organization with a mission of advocacy for the poor and powerless into, in recent years, a major national entity in both scope and ambition. Historically, ACORN has, as part of its community-organizing mission, provided a range of services for its constituency, including citizen engagement, lobbying, political mobilization, voter registration and advocacy about foreclosure prevention, fair wage laws, affordable housing, first-time home ownership, predatory lending reform and mortgage protection.

The CRS report, though, states that the Maryland Wiretap Act, modeled after the federal statute Schmerling v. Injured Workers' Insurance Fund, makes it unlawful to "willfully intercept ... any ... oral ... communication" or to "willfully disclose ... the contents of any ... oral communication, knowing ... that the information was obtained through the interception of an ... oral ... communication ... violation" of the Maryland Wiretap Act.

According to the CRS report, Maryland defines an oral communication as "any conversation or words spoken to or by any person in private conversation," and "When an oral communication is intercepted, determining whether a violation of the Wiretap occurred hinges on a jury determination that at least one of the parties had a reasonable expectation of privacy."

Meanwhile California law "makes it a crime to eavesdrop upon or record a confidential communication, intentionally, without the consent of all the parties to the communication, and by means of an electronic amplifying or recording device."

The report states, "As a general matter, federal law permits private individuals to record face to face conversations, as long as the recording is not done for criminal or tortuous purposes." The New York law seems "more forgiving, for it only reaches those who record remotely"; the laws of Washington, DC, mirror federal law prior to 1986 amendments to the federal statute; and "D.C. law permits one-party consent recordings, although the consequences of the want of complete symmetry with federal provisions are unclear." On the other hand, "the laws of Maryland and California appear to ban private recording of face to face conversation, absent the consent of all of the participants."

Concerning ACORN's efforts to help people with housing issues, the CRS report concludes that ACORN's activities promote the development of affordable housing, provide counseling to first-time homebuyers and homeowners facing foreclosure, and support people affected by Hurricane Katrina.

For example, the CRC report states that ACORN's 2006 annual report indicates that ACORN Housing Corporation's (AHC) development program secured more than $140 million in construction financing to develop 735 new units of affordable housing in Houston, Chicago, Phoenix and New York. CRS also found reports of ACORN activities related to improving housing conditions, including organizing tenants to demand repairs and conducting lead paint outreach programs. In addition, AHC reported that in 2006 it counseled 13,738 first-time homeowners and helped 1,474 homeowners into more affordable mortgages. And CRC also states that ACORN has been "very involved" with housing activities in the Gulf Coast area after Hurricane Katrina: ACORN helped in the cleanup of 1,850 homes and organized 10,000 hurricane survivors into the ACORN Katrina Survivors Association.

Conservatives, including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-California) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), have criticized ACORN for a long time. Republican members of Congress also dubbed ACORN a "criminal enterprise" with close and current ties to the highest levels of the Obama administration and the labor movement. Republicans created 81 pages of documents about ACORN's voter registration activities in 2004 and 2006 to supplement Issa's July 2009 report, "Is ACORN Intentionally Structured as a Criminal Enterprise?" Also, Representative Issa previously sponsored the "Defund ACORN Act."

ACORN lost its long-standing federal funding in two September votes, but it wasn't only Republicans who voted against providing ACORN funding: The House voted 345-75, which included 172 Democrats, to prohibit ACORN from getting federal funds. The vote came after the video camera controversy, which triggered much media coverage in right-wing news outlets and then also in the mainstream press. Also, ACORN was denied funding for a three-year $780,000 grant for outreach to poor communities and to raise awareness of the lung disease asthma; ACORN's grant got dropped with the Environmental Protection Agency as a result of the approval of the Defund ACORN Act.

However, in an analysis of legislation to prohibit funding to ACORN, Kenneth Thomas states in the CRS report that "while the regulatory purpose of ensuring that federal funds are properly spent is a legitimate one, it is not clear that imposing a permanent government-wide ban on contracting with or providing grants to ACORN under the proposed Defund ACORN Act fits that purpose, at least when the ban is applied only to ACORN and its affiliates." Thomas also writes, "The brevity of the funding moratorium imposed on ACORN and its affiliates under the 2010 Continuing Appropriation Resolution, however, could arguably be justified as an expedience necessary to address an issue of immediate congressional concern, while allowing Congress sufficient time to consider a longer term solution."

Talking about the CRS report, Conyers said, "I appreciate the careful work of CRS on these issues. I look forward to seeing the results of the work being undertaken by other agencies, including the recently announced Government Accountability Office review concerning federal funding of ACORN."

Meanwhile ACORN critic Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) told The American Spectator that he was disappointed that the Democratic-controlled Congress and the Obama administration aren't doing much about what he considers wrongdoings by ACORN.

In the story, the House Judiciary Committee member describes the ACORN saga as "the largest corruption crisis in the history of America" and says, "It's thousands of times bigger than Watergate because Watergate was only a little break-in by a couple of guys."

Last modified on Wednesday, 30 December 2009 11:50