The Magazine

From Little ACORNs, Big Scandals Grow

Barack Obama: torn between two models of community organizing.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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The in-your-face Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is currently being investigated for voter-registration fraud in 13 states. ACORN is often referred to as the spawn of Saul Alinsky (1909-72), the godfather of radical community organizers, whose most famous aphorism was "Keep the pressure on." ACORN's founders certainly had Alinsky's principles in mind when they founded the organization in 1970.

There is a web of connections between Alinsky, ACORN, and the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama. From 1985 to 1988, Obama worked for the Developing Communities Project, a church-based consortium operated by several Alinsky disciples on Chicago's poverty-plagued South Side. The DCP was imbued with Alinsky's philosophy of helping poor people band together at the grassroots level to confront a city government that frequently neglected them. (Obama contributed to the anthology After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois, touting the "impressive results" his Alinsky-inspired project had achieved.) Just before he left Chicago for Harvard Law School, Obama also went through training with the organization Alinsky founded in 1940, the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), and which carries on his legacy today.

Back in Chicago in the early 1990s, Obama represented ACORN in a voter-registration suit and directed a voter-registration drive for an ACORN affiliate, Project Vote. He sat on the board of the Chicago-based Woods Foundation that made hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of grants to Project Vote and (according to a report published in an ACORN journal in 2004) ran a session on power as part of ACORN's annual leadership training sessions for several years before his first run for public office in 1996.

To hear it from people connected to IAF, though, Obama took an unfortunate turn when he linked himself to ACORN, whose activist shenanigans would have Alinsky spinning in his grave. These range from allegedly procuring thousands of phony and multiple signatures on voter registration lists (one 19-year-old in Cleveland claimed to have been bribed with cash and cigarettes to register 72 times over 18 months) to using taxpayer funds to strong-arm mortgage companies into lending to the un-credit-worthy, helping precipitate the current financial meltdown.

"Shakedowns" and "blackmail" were the words used by IAF's director, Edward Chambers, a protégé of Alinsky, about ACORN and its activities when I called the IAF's Chicago headquarters (IAF today trains organizers in a loose network of some 57 affiliates in 21 states). It was the day before the New York Times published a story about a June 18 internal report by an ACORN lawyer which contained a laundry list of "potentially improper use of charitable dollars for political purposes; money transfers among [ACORN's 174 affiliates, some of them tax-exempt, others not], and potential conflicts created by employees working for multiple affiliates," as Times reporter Stephanie Strom put it.

One area of potential impropriety detailed in Strom's story is the relationship between Project Vote, registered as a tax-exempt charity with the Internal Revenue Service since 1994 and thus barred from engaging in partisan political activities, and ACORN itself, a membership organization incorporated under Louisiana law that is nonprofit but not tax-exempt and is thus free to be as partisan as it wants. ACORN's political action committee, for example, endorsed Obama in February, and the Obama campaign in turn paid an ACORN consulting affiliate, Citizens Services Inc., more than $832,000 for its work in helping Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

ACORN has a contract with Project Vote to conduct voter-registration drives using ACORN employees, who initially claimed to have signed up 1.3 million new voters at a cost of $16 million, then lowered that figure to around 450,000 (according to an October 23 New York Times story) after eliminating fraudulent registrations, duplicates, and incomplete forms. The internal report, by Washington lawyer Elizabeth Kingsley, pointed out that until very recently, Project Vote's executive director, Zach Pollett, was also ACORN's political director. (Pollett resigned from Project Vote in July but continues to work for the charity as a consultant via another ACORN affiliate.) Furthermore, the report noted, Project Vote has had only one independent director (who served only briefly) throughout its entire tax-exempt history. The rest of the board has consisted entirely of ACORN staffers plus two dues-paying ACORN members. Some of them told Strom they had no idea they were on the Project Vote board, which, like the boards of many ACORN affiliates, met seldom, if ever, and failed to keep minutes.