What is the ACORN controversy about?

Here are the basics about ACORN and about the videos that have put the organization in hot water.

By , Staff writer

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    A member of ACORN holds a banner during a march in Phoenix, Arizona, in this July 27 file photo.
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The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is once again at the center of controversy. This time the group is in hot water over videos that show employees telling two conservative activists masquerading as a pimp and prostitute how to trick federal tax authorities.

ACORN says the videos are part of a “multiyear political assault” on the organization, which conservatives say uses tax dollars to advance a liberal agenda. But the organization also says it is “deeply disturbed” by the videos and has launched its own review of employee procedures and training.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are using the videos as evidence for why the federal government should cut off all funding to the organization, which helps low- and moderate-income people gain access to mortgages.

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On Monday, senators overwhelmingly voted to keep the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) from issuing grants to ACORN. On Wednesday, Sen. Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama asked for a full-blown investigation of the group.

But how did an organization that largely concerns itself with matters of America’s poorest find itself, once again, in the sights of both lawmakers and talk-show hosts? Following are some basics about ACORN and the recent controversy.

What is ACORN?

According to the group’s website, ACORN is a collection of grass-roots organizations that serve as an advocate for the poor. It began in the 1970s and now has about 1,200 chapters. It is “committed to social and economic justice” and has worked to raise the minimum wage, end predatroy lending practices, and develop affordable housing.

But during the presidential campaign last year, a few ACORN employees working to register voters were charged with filing bogus applications. They were caught and fired. But when it was revealed that President Obama had connections with ACORN, the incident became highly politicized. Republican presidential candidate John McCain attempted to tie ACORN with Mr. Obama.

ACORN does receive federal tax dollars for some of its work. The Senate vote on the motion presented Monday by Sen. Mike Johanns (R) of Nebraska would prevent it from receiving any dollars from HUD. The group was in line to receive grants to counsel low-income homebuyers.

Senator Johanns, who also wants the US attorney general to investigate ACORN, says that the group has received $53 million in federal money since 1994.

In light of the most recent controversy, the Census Bureau has fired ACORN, which had been hired to help with the 2010 Census.

What do the videos show?

On Sept. 10, the website Biggovernment.com began posting videos of a couple who said they were operating a prostitution ring that involved underage girls from El Salvador. They went to ACORN offices in New York, Washington, California, and Maryland with essentially the same story: They wanted help hiding their illicit income from federal tax authorities.

In all the videos, ACORN employees offered their help, knowing full well what the couple's intentions were.

Mike Flynn, editor of Biggovernment.com, said Wednesday that the site will be posting even more videos of ACORN.

Since the videos aired, ACORN has become the scorn of conservative talk-show hosts. Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News have said the tapes prove not only that the group is “corrupt,” but also that corruption extends to the Obama administration.

“Who does the president surround himself with? ACORN and [the Service Employees International Union]. Well, gee, there's corruption there. We can't take anything,” Mr. Beck said.

One Republican insider told Politico: “This is an organization that has attracted attention before.... Basically, ACORN gets federal money, and it advocates for the liberal, Democrat agenda. That’s wrong, and we need to stop it.”

What is ACORN doing in light of the controversy?

On Wednesday, ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis said the tapes were “indefensible actions of a handful of employees” and warranted an independent review of the group's procedures.

She said this in a statement:

"We have all been deeply disturbed by what we've seen in some of these videos. I must say, on behalf of ACORN's Board and our Advisory Council, that we will go to whatever lengths necessary to reestablish the public trust. For nearly forty years, ACORN has given voice to communities, and gotten results. Right now, our nearly 500,000 member are working their hearts out for quality, affordable healthcare for every American and to help stop the foreclosure crisis. We must get this process right, so the good work can go forward."

Can ACORN survive this latest controversy?

John Fund, an op-ed writer for The Wall Street Journal, says that this time, ACORN “may be finally running off the rails.”

He noted that last week, “11 of its workers were accused by Florida prosecutors of falsifying information on 888 voter registration forms." He continued, "Last month, Acorn's former Las Vegas, Nev., field director, Christopher Edwards, agreed to testify against the group in a case in which Las Vegas election officials say 48% of the voter registration forms the group turned in were 'clearly fraudulent.' Acorn itself is charged with 13 counts of illegally using a quota system to compensate workers in an effort to boost the number of registrations. (Acorn has denied wrongdoing in all of these cases.)”

ACORN says it is besieged – again – because of a few bad apples within their offices.

Brian Kettenring, an ACORN spokesman, told the Associated Press that Republicans were "playing politics" and trying to "stop ACORN's good work fighting to stop the foreclosure crisis and to win quality, affordable healthcare for all Americans."

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