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Sep. 28 2009 - 2:48 pm | 41 views | 2 recommendations | 27 comments

ACORN Chief Executive: “We’re not afraid”

Bertha Lewis, head of ACORN

Update: The Washington Post issued a correction for the article cited below that reads: “This article about the community organizing group ACORN incorrectly said that a conservative journalist targeted the organization for hidden-camera videos partly because its voter-registration drives bring Latinos and African Americans to the polls. Although ACORN registers people mostly from those groups, the maker of the videos, James E. O’Keefe, did not specifically mention them.”


This morning, I interviewed Bertha Lewis, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Organizer of ACORN, the largest community organization in the country. ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, helps poor people register to vote, fight for fair wages, find affordable housing, and improve the conditions of their local schools. Naturally, Republicans want to destroy them. I asked Lewis how it feels to be a GOP target, about Congress’s decision to defund ACORN, and the recent revelations about the source of funds for the infamous ACORN videos created by John O’Keefe.

O’Keefe has repeatedly said that he is “absolutely independent” and received no outside funding to make his films. However, the Village Voice reports that he actually has heavyweight conservative backers including Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook. Depending on who you ask, Thiel invested anywhere from $10,000 (according to his representatives) to $30,000 (according to early Voice reports) into O’Keefe’s ACORN project.

Thiel is a gay man who has railed against the evils of “multiculturalism.” He now lives in San Francisco and runs a hedge fund. With the help of his sugar daddy, O’Keefe made the now infamous ACORN videos, an illegal act in itself, says Lewis. “You cannot secretly tape someone without their permission, and so he broke the law,” she says.

Though she calls the behavior of the former ACORN employees “inexcusable” and “indefensible,” and immediately took action to fire them when she learned of the videos, Lewis also called O’Keefe a man of “questionable  character.” ACORN has brought a lawsuit against O’Keefe and his partner, better known as the woman who will forever be the ho (her parents must be thrilled) to O’Keefe’s pimp, Hannah Giles.

The videos are edited very creatively — if I’m being generous — to show only the ACORN employees who engaged in shady behavior, and not the dozens of other ACORN offices from which O’Keefe and Company were ejected, and in a few cases, ACORN employees called the police on the duo. In no instance was the paperwork for the fictional pimp and prostitute successfully filed. The cases were all red-flagged as soon as employees in higher echelons noticed the suspicious details of their story.

I’m sure you heard all about that part on FOX (…or maybe not.)

Lewis believes O’Keefe was motivated by a desire to stop ACORN’s successful process of registering poor and minority people to vote.

Mr. O’Keefe…actually admitted that one of the reasons he did this was because ACORN was organizing poor people, making sure that they voted, and most of those folks, generally, would not vote Republican. And he wanted to put a stop to this because too many minorities were voting. He actually said this.

A September 19 article about ACORN in the New York Times reads:

James O’Keefe, one of the two filmmakers, said he went after ACORN because it registers minorities likely to vote against Republicans: “Politicians are getting elected single-handedly due to this organization,” O’Keefe told the Washington Post. ”No one was holding this organization accountable.’

While Lewis is the first to admit ACORN isn’t a perfect organization, she worries that the targeting of ACORN will leave other community groups susceptible to the whims of a certain political party that really, really doesn’t want poor, black, and brown people to vote Democrat.

ACORN recently lost their federal funding under the Defund ACORN Act, which essentially punishes the organization for allegations that have never been examined in court. The Defund ACORN Act states that an organization should be banned from receiving federal funding if it “employs any applicable individual, in a permanent or temporary capacity” or “has under contract or retains any applicable individual” who has “been indicted for a violation under any Federal or State law governing the financing of a campaign for election for public office or any law governing the administration of an election for public office, including a law relating to voter registration.” This standard is only being applied to ACORN, and not, say, Blackwater.

Because of the highly selective, targeted nature of the vote to defund ACORN, many critics have declared the act unconstitutional. Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald writes, “The irony of all of this is that the Congress is attempting to accomplish an unconstitutional act:  singling out and punishing ACORN, which is clearly a ‘bill of attainder’ that the Constitution explicitly prohibits – i.e., an act aimed at punishing a single party without a trial.”

ACORN is most definitely being singled out and targeted by Republicans. For example, Karl Rove sent emails while he was in the George Bush White House that show ACORN was targeted because of the group’s successful voter registration campaigns. Rove specifically sent David Iglesias and others to find some sort of prosecution for alleged voter registration fraud. When Iglesias came back and said there was no evidence that ACORN had committed fraud, he was fired among other attorneys, and that led to the Alberto Gonzales Attorneygate scandal in which then Attorney General Gonzales was dismissed.

“We now have those emails going back to 2004 where you clearly see that ACORN was targeted politically for our actions because we actually were very effective in making sure that poor people, people of color, especially minorities in this country, have a voice,” says Lewis.

Apparently, the media and the American people have forgotten this very clear example of political targeting, and quickly joined the ACORN witch-hunt once again even though Republicans are attacking ACORN in the exact same fashion. ACORN is a convenient scapegoat for the Republicans, who desperately needed to distract attention from the fiery train wreck known as the Bush administration, which systematically destroyed America’s reputation, military, and economy for eight long years.

In the hysterical rush to condemn ACORN, the GOP (with an assist, as always, from FOX News) has successfully distracted Americans from the real culprits of government bailouts and contract scandals, specifically government defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, both major donors to the Republican and Democratic Parties. Lockheed Martin has been forced to pay at least $68 million for getting caught 11 separate times committing government contract fraud.  Northrop Grumman has had to pay around $500 million for getting caught nine times for contract fraud.

Then there’s the gold standard for corruption, Blackwater, the private mercenary company that was recently found to have defrauded the government of $55 million.  And as Rachel Maddow points out, that‘s just one Blackwater contractor, and they‘ve got lots of contracts. This doesn’t even count Blackwater’s little murder problem. Five Blackwater employees have been charged with murder during the course of their government contracted duties in Iraq. Yikes.

But you like your scandals to involve prostitutes, you say. Fear not! The government contractor known as ArmorGroup has you covered. ArmorGroup personnel, who are the recipients of taxpayer money, were also allegedly engaged in a prostitution ring in Kabul. Oh, and there’s also DynCorp, which sent at least 13 DynCorp employees home from a U.S. government contract in Bosnia after they were found to be taking part in a Bosnian sex slave ring involving underage girls. Double Yikes.

Yet, somehow, we’re being sold the lie that ACORN is the big villain here. In an interview on Salon Radio, Grayson said, “The amount of money that ACORN has received in the past 20 years altogether is roughly equal to what the taxpayer paid to Halliburton each day during the war in Iraq.” Halliburton was accused of unlawfully receiving special treatment for work in Iraq, Kuwait and the Balkans, and was caught overcharging the Pentagon for fuel deliveries into Iraq. But nevermind. Former Halliburton CEO, Dick Cheney, gets to parade around television as the “serious voice” of Conservatism, while ACORN is publicly flogged for the behavior of a few bad employees.

Of course, neither Republicans nor Democrats are in a rush to defund Blackwater, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, or any of the other major defense contractors because these companies are extremely bipartisan in their campaign donations. It’s smart business to buy off both parties, so that way the entire government works for the company, and not just one political party.

Big money can buy big access to political power. Once corporations control politicians, those elected officials will then vote to uphold the structure facilitating their corporate donors. This is true for defense contractors, but it’s also true for the giant financial institutions (also major donors for both political parties,) which have been happily raiding the Federal Reserve with the blessing of the government.

I asked Lewis if it annoyed her a little bit that Goldman Sachs employees got fat bonuses from taxpayer dollars for helping to destroy the economy, while Congress stripped a group finding houses for poor people of its federal funding. “Absolutely,” says Lewis, “People can say what they want, but I know this is such a true right wing, Conservative campaign against us, and it’s not fair, it’s not just, and it’s not the American way. Why start to attack those at the bottom? Start with the big guys at the top.”

Perhaps ACORN was fighting for the wrong people. The poor and people of color don’t have huge lobbying firms working on their behalf, and they can’t buy the right friends in Congress. “We know that we’re being used a symbol and a target. And it is frustrating,” says Lewis.

However, she plans to keep fighting. “This has happened to other civil rights organizations in the past, and we know that this goes along with doing this kind of work. We’re not afraid, we are determined, and we will be around for the next 40 years.”


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27 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Fabulous piece. Finally some sane coverage of the ACORN “story.”

  2. collapse expand

    “Mr. O’Keefe…actually admitted that one of the reasons he did this was because ACORN was organizing poor people, making sure that they voted, and most of those folks, generally, would not vote Republican. And he wanted to put a stop to this because too many minorities were voting. He actually said this.”

    But he didn’t admit that. And there aren’t dozens of other offices from which they were rejected. Prove which ones, please.

    And Blackwater’s not a 501c3. There’s other laws to prosecute defense contractors, so bringing up Blackwater, et al, is just trying to drag a red herring across the path.

    Why didn’t you ask Lewis about the $1million embezzlement and subsequent coverup?

    • collapse expand

      But he didn’t admit that.

      Lewis was referring to the September 19 article about ACORN in the New York Times. I included that in the article. The article reads:

      James O’Keefe, one of the two filmmakers, said he went after ACORN because it registers minorities likely to vote against Republicans: “Politicians are getting elected single-handedly due to this organization,” O’Keefe told the Washington Post. ”No one was holding this organization accountable.’

      Contractors like Blackwater and Lockheed Martin haven’t lost their government contracts. That’s precisely my point. If ACORN loses its funding for the behavior of a few bad employees, surely these huge multi-billion dollar contractors should lose their funding for engaging in massive fraud and prostitution rings.

      As for the $1 million embezzlement scandal, Bertha Lewis was not the CEO of ACORN during that time. Wade Rathke was the CEO, and he stepped down in 2008.

      At no point do I argue that ACORN is a perfect organization. In fact, neither does Lewis. It’s quite possible the organization got too big, too fast, and failed to effectively supervise every facet of the organization. But that tends to happen to all companies when they get too large to monitor all the time. Goldman Sachs is a good example of a company that is filled with “bad apple” employees, and yet there hasn’t been a major campaign from Republicans to take back the bailout money. In America, there is a two-tier system of justice where less powerful organizations like ACORN are flogged endlessly for their sins, while powerful, rich entities like Blackwater and Lockheed Martin not only get away with it, but then actually profit from government contracts. That’s outrageous.

      I simply propose a one-tie justice system where all organizations and contractors face the same code of justice. That doesn’t seem like a super radical notion.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    O’Keefe was funded by Republicans
    …that makes it OK for Acorn to support underage prostitution.
    O’Keefe did silly videos in college
    …that makes it OK for Acorn to support underage prostitution.
    O’Keefe filmed people illegally
    …that makes it OK for Acorn to support underage prostitution.
    Big corporations are corrupt and lobby
    …that makes it OK for Acorn to support underage prostitution.

    I feel we are getting distracted from the bigger issue here. By now, I assume you can guess what I believe that issue is. I’m sure most ACORN employees would not have given him helpful information. The fact that any would is an issue. The issue here is not whether people should encourage votes from the poor, but whether ACORN is the correct organization to do that.

    Incidentally, I do not believe it is advisable to encourage people to vote who are not inclined to. I do support providing transportation to voting sites, so that poverty does not prevent democracy; however, such services have to be universal. Providing it only to certain classes of people makes it too easy to focus only on classes which will vote a certain way.

  4. collapse expand

    “Naturally, Republicans want to destroy them.”

    So much for an unbiased report. Nice puff piece.

    You do a disservice the this website’s regular readers.

    There’s a long history of ACORN, it’s direct ties to organized labor, and questionable activities. While I recognize and appreciate their new leader’s right and responsibility to defend the organization, this “story” will probably do more to hurt than help because of your obvious bias.

  5. collapse expand

    Acorn has been found quilty of voter fraud in more than a dozen states. Did you forget that?

    • collapse expand

      Not true, some people who were hired by ACORN were found guilty (or pleaded guilty) for voter reg fraud. More often than not the bogus voter reg forms were brought to the attention of election officials by ACORN itself. By law ACORN must turn in all voter reg forms regardless of whether ACORN thinks they are bogus or not. No voter fraud has ever been committed by ACORN or it’s employees.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    I would agree that the GOP has targeted ACORN in the past and in the present. I’m not sure the GOP denies that.

    Because ACORN was trying to get one party elected and used as one of it’s means flooding voter registration records with fraudlent names, the other party would be foolhardy to ignore it.

    If there were problems at one office, maybe even two, it’s reasonable to argue that this isn’t a systemic problem. Instead they’ve had voter registration problems in 14 states to date, and this not-so-undercover sting occurred in 5 offices.

    The voter registration fraud is probably due to their desire for money. I don’t have the resources or time to investigate, but I’m sure that you’ll find they equate number of voters they register is tied to the amount of money they receive. And that would go for the individual workers and for the heads of the organization.

  7. collapse expand

    Going Nuts

    ACORN: Alien Children Offered Regularly Nationwide
    ACORN: Authorities Caught One Registering “Napoleon”
    ACORN: Assembly of the Complacent: Organized, Registered & Non-productive!
    ACORN: Association of Crooks O’Keefe Revealed in a Nanosecond
    ACORN: “Audacity” and “Change” that Obama Represents Nationally
    ACORN: Assorted Crazies, Oddballs, Reprobates, and Nincompoops
    ACORN: Association of Criminals Obama Represented in the Nineties
    ACORN: A Crooked, Offensive, Repulsive Nut
    ACORN: Agitators, Cheats, Offenders, and Repugnant Nonentities
    ACORN: Advising Criminals, Organizing Radical Nutjobs
    ACORN: Assisting Call-girls, Obama, Reid & Nancy
    ACORN: Advancing Collectivism, Obamamania, Reparations Now!
    ACORN: After Clinton, Obama Retards a Nation
    ACORN: Alike Carter, Obama is Regretful and Negative
    ACORN: America, Could Obama Resign Now??
    ACORN: Against Conservatives, Order, Republicans, and the Nation
    ACORN: American Cash Outflows to Rathke’s “Nonprofits”
    ACORN: Apparently “Community Organizing” Really is Nefarious
    ACORN: Awarding Capital to Objectionable Rent-seeking Noncontributors
    ACORN: Apathetic, Crybaby, Odiferous, Ratlike Nothings
    ACORN: Andrew Clearly Outplayed the Resentful NYT
    ACORN: Always Cheating, Often Ruining Neighborhoods
    ACORN: Addled Crack-heads and Obnoxious Race-baiting Neurotics
    ACORN: Appalling Cesspool; Obscene Revolting Nightmare
    ACORN: A Clan of Odious, Ridiculed Nitwits
    ACORN: Another Corrupt Obama Run Network

    Others? Please suggest!

  8. collapse expand

    Also along the lines of the “few bad apples” arguments, I seem to recall many people excusing the activities of a “few bad apples” during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. They said there’s no need to investigate the leaders or look into it any further. So why is the “few bad apples” argument a valid argument when dealing with the US military but not a valid argument when dealing with ACORN?

  9. collapse expand

    Allison, I know this old, but only saw it today.

    Your sections about O’Keefe’s funding suggest that O’Keefe did not fund this ACORN video project by himself. However the Village Voice piece says that Peter Theil completely denies paying for any part of the ACORN sting operation. Rather, O’Keefe only received funding for his “Taxpayers Clearing House” video.

    I’m not quite sure how transgressions within the Military Industrial Complex excuse ACORN. I’m all for vetting government contracts and punishing those who commit fraud/abuse, but not going after ACORN would also amount to our representatives being derelict in their duty. It’s apples to apples; if they’re all rotten throw them all out.

    As far Ms. Lewis’ statement that O’Keefe broke the law by secretly taping the interview, that charge only applies to Maryland state law. The four other interviews in San Diego, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City were completely legal – I think you should clarify that.

    One final statement bothered me:

    “videos are edited very creatively – if i’m being generous – to show only the ACORN employees who engaged in shady behavior, and not the dozens of other ACORN offices from which O’Keefe and Company were ejected, and in a few cases, ACORN employees called the police on the duo.”

    I didn’t see any significant editing in the videos that falsely represented the actual interview. On a second note nobody has provided evidence on either side to prove that there were “dozens” of interviews. Ms. Lewis doesn’t have interview records or claims from employees outside of the 5 locations, that would verify having met that same “Pimp and Ho” in cities O’Keefe didn’t mention. They were not reportedly (more on this below) thrown out of offices in “a few cases” but one. Please try not to embellish to the point of false accusations.

    You may not have seen it yet, but looks like they released the Philadelphia (Go Phillies!) video today: http://biggovernment.com/2009/10/21/acorn-video-prostitution-scandal-in-philadelphia-pa-part-i/

    Looks like Ms. Lewis may have exaggerated ACORN’s actions in Philadelphia a little bit.

  10. collapse expand

    Thanks for pointing it out. I’m a bit confused by that, too. Though, this doesn’t alter my original thesis — that the GOP has politically targeted ACORN in the past. Unless someone has issued a correction for Karl Rove’s emails that I haven’t read. :)

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    I co-host Citizen Radio, the alternative political radio show. I am a contributing reporter to Huffington Post, Alternet.org, and The Nation.

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