by Kevin Mooney
Even if Congress does move decisively to cut off funding from the self-described network of community organizers who previously called themselves ACORN, the renamed entities are likely to remain potent and well-funded into the foreseeable future, former insiders say.
In fact, donors may find it easier to channel funds in the direction of liberal activists who describe themselves as community organizers now that the sullied name has been dropped, they suggest.
Shortly after ACORN’s leadership announced that it was dissolving on April 1, national and state affiliates repackaged themselves under generic sounding descriptions. ACORN Housing, for example, became known as the Affordable Housing Centers of America.
“Anyone who celebrates the demise of ACORN has celebrated prematurely because they are not going away,” Anita MonCrief, a former Project Vote/ACORN employee, said in an interview. “The network is repositioning itself so it can receive new donations.”
ACORN, which stands for the Association of Community Activists for Reform Now, has received over $53 million in federal funds since 1994, federal records show. Although the U.S. Supreme Court turned away a legal challenge to last year’s congressional ban on public funding, there does not appear to be any concerted effort on the part of lawmakers to have it reimposed.
Moreover, it is worth noting that only four Democrats joined with Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) to oppose an amendment that would allow organizations with a criminal history to receive funding. The amendment was submitted as part of a mortgage bill several months before the videotape scandals broke.
“There’s a real boldness on the part of Democrats who want to keep funding ACORN,” Rep. Bachmann said. “They are incredulous about the possibility of losing their majority and they know which side their bread gets buttered on and ACORN is their friend.”
Even so, only a small-percentage of ACORN’s overall financial support comes from the government, MonCrief, explains. “The rest of the money comes from left-leaning foundations and there is no indication these funding sources will dry up,” she said. “There are also individual donors and you also have to include organized labor.”
MonCrief indentified Wellspring Advisors, Vanguard Charitable Endowment, the Rockefeller Fund and the Tides Foundation as the major conduits for facilitating anonymous donations.
“If someone wanted to contribute directly to ACORN without having their name attached to it they could give a check to Wellspring Advisors, they can give to Vanguard Charitable Endowment, they can give to Tides Foundation,” she said. “There are so many ways ACORN can obtain money through these anonymous donors and some are connected to the Rockefeller Fund. So long as there is an agenda they are going to make sure that money is funneled to them anyway they can.”
Wellspring Advisors is the critical component in this equation, she emphasized.
“Donors were able to give anonymously to Wellspring so the money would not be traced back to where it was coming from and Wellspring would then cut a check from Vanguard,” MonCrief continued. “That’s one way it happened.”
Sandy Newman, who founded Project Vote, operated as a conduit between Wellspring and the ACORN affiliate, MonCrief points out on her blog.
“ It’s interesting that Wellspring is one of Project Vote’s major donors and Sandy Newman steers other money in Project Vote’s direction,” she wrote. “Newman founded Project Vote along with Zach Polett, who was also head of ACORN Political Operations. ACORN voter registration drives are intentionally partisan undertakings with the intent to replace elected officials with ACORN friendly candidates. This is once again the “wink, wink” approach to doing business. It all seems so legal on the surface.”
Other former insiders such as Ronald Sykes, who served as treasurer for the Washington D.C. ACORN affiliate, have raised questions about Citizens Consulting Inc (CCI), which was the major accounting arm for the national group and its allied organizations. A report from the House Oversight Committee concluded that CCI was largely responsible for misappropriating and comingling funds.
“Money was funneled through Wellspring, from there it went into various bank accounts controlled by CCI,” MonCrief said. “CCI had dozens and dozens of accounts. Some were Project Vote and some were ACORN.”
MonCrief, who testified against ACORN in 2008 as part of a voter registration fraud case in Pennsylvania, said the Project Vote affiliate was closely interlinked with the national organization’s operations.
“It is laughable to say Project Vote was in any way separate because it functioned as one cohesive arm with ACORN,” MonCrief explained. “Project Vote could not exist without this support because it doesn’t have the field capacity to run voter registration programs.”
ACORN remains the subject of voter registration fraud investigations in at least 14 states and MonCrief anticipates that the same network will find a way to remain active in the 2010 midterm elections and beyond. The political operatives that continue to stand behind the renamed affiliates are very shrewd in the sense that they will target areas where elections are close and where they have sympathetic local election officials, MonCrief warned.
Despite the publicity that followed various criminal investigations, there is much about ACORN that remains hidden from public view, Matthew Vadum, a senior analyst and editor with the Capital Research Center (CRC) suggests.
“We really don’t know how much ACORN has received from its aggressive corporate shakedown efforts,” Vadum observed. “The renamed network could remain well-funded thanks to liberal foundations and high dollar donors such as Herb and Marion Sandler.”
An intrepid researcher and investigator, Vadum has kept careful tabs on the rebranded ACORN entities. Most recently, he reported on the lobbying efforts of the rebranded D.C. affiliate.
As public attention dissipates and the ACORN name fades, foundations that pulled back in the wake of negative press attention last year may find they have more flexibility and dexterity to re-establish their support. This would be a significant development as ACORN drew in millions of dollars from foundations in the span of just a few years.
The lead ACORN organization registered in Arkansas and New Orleans has received $3 million from the Marguerite Casey Foundation, $821,000 from the Robin Hood Foundation, $595,000 from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and $65,000 from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, according to CRC.
Other foundations have contributed to ACORN’s affiliates.
Project Vote has received $4,047,500 from the Rockefeller Family Fund, $1,460,801 from the Tides Foundation, and $2,643,100 from the Vanguard Charitable Endowment Program, financial records show. ACORN’s American Institute for Social Justice (AISJ) has received almost $30 million in foundation grants, since 2000, according to CRC.
Other generous benefactors to AISJ include the Marguerite Casey Foundation, which donated $5,125,000 and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which donated $4,130,000, CRC research shows.
In previous reports for CRC, Vadum has also called attention to the Woods Fund of Chicago, where President Barack Obama and former Weather Underground leader William Ayers sat as board members. The Woods Fund has donated about $190,000 to the ACORN network, according to financial records.
The corporate shakedown efforts, which have also been lucrative for ACORN, were largely funded by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), according to the testimony MonCrief delivered in Pa.
One of the most aggressive and successful joint SEIU-ACORN nationwide campaigns known as “Muscle for Money” targets corporations and top officers who resist union demands, MonCrief has explained.
Even in the teeth of ongoing scandals, ACORN and its affiliates received over $1 million from organized labor in 2009 including over $220,000 from the Change to Win coalition, U.S. Department of Labor financial disclosure forms show.
The 2009 LM-2 disclosure forms show that SEIU Local 32 donated $25,400 to the national ACORN organization, Local Union 1 donated $32,791 to the ACORN Community labor Training Center and the national SEIU donated $37,878 to the ACORN Labor Partnership.
All told, organized labor has contributed over $10 million to ACORN, since 2005 with SEIU contributing about $8.7 million of this sum, according to Labor Department records.
In 2009 gubernatorial races, ACORN was active in attempting to swing the New Jersey election in cooperation with SEIU, according to other press reports. However, the network was less visible in Virginia where Republican Bob McDonnell won by a large margin.
As it turns out, Gov. Chris Christie’s margin of victory over the Democratic incumbent in N.J. was large enough to avoid a recount. But there is a lesson here for Republican operatives in that community organizers who were supposedly setback by on-going scandals still found expression where they could most be effective; in close-competitive races where it is possible to maximize the influence of organized labor.