The group's ties to Obama are extensive
By JOHN FUND
JOHN FUND ON THE TRAIL
OCTOBER 30, 2008
Acorn, the liberal "community organizing" group that claims it will deploy 15,000 get-out-the-vote workers on Election Day, can't stay out of the news.
The FBI is investigating its voter registration efforts in several states, amid allegations that almost a third of the 1.3 million cards it turned in are invalid. And yesterday, a former employee of Acorn testified in a Pennsylvania state court that the group's quality-control efforts were "minimal or nonexistent" and largely window dressing. Anita MonCrief also says that Acorn was given lists of potential donors by several Democratic presidential campaigns, including that of Barack Obama, to troll for contributions.
The Obama campaign denies it "has any ties" to Acorn, but Mr. Obama's ties are extensive. In 1992 he headed a registration effort for Project Vote, an Acorn partner at the time. He did so well that he was made a top trainer for Acorn's Chicago conferences. In 1995, he represented Acorn in a key case upholding the constitutionality of the new Motor Voter Act -- the first law passed by the Clinton administration -- which created the mandated, nationwide postcard voter registration system that Acorn workers are using to flood election offices with bogus registrations.
Ms. MonCrief testified that in November 2007 Project Vote development director Karyn Gillette told her she had direct contact with the Obama campaign and had obtained their donor lists. Ms. MonCrief also testified she was given a spreadsheet to use in cultivating Obama donors who had maxed out on donations to the candidate, but who could contribute to voter registration efforts. Project Vote calls the allegation "absolutely false."
She says that when she had trouble with what appeared to be duplicate names on the list, Ms. Gillette told her she would talk with the Obama campaign and get a better version. Ms. MonCrief has given me copies of the donor lists she says were obtained from other Democratic campaigns, as well as the 2004 DNC donor lists.
In her testimony, Ms. MonCrief says she was upset by Acorn's "Muscle for Money" program, which she said intimidated businesses Acorn opposed into paying "protection" money in the form of grants. Acorn's Brian Kettering says the group only wants to change corporate behavior: "Acorn is proud of its corporate campaigns to stop abuses of working families."
Ms. MonCrief, 29, never expected to testify in a case brought by the state's Republican Party seeking the local Acorn affiliate's voter registration lists. An idealistic graduate of the University of Alabama, she joined Project Vote in 2005 because she thought it was empowering poor people. A strategic consultant for Acorn and a development associate with its Project Vote voter registration affiliate, Ms. MonCrief sat in on policy-making meetings with the national staff. She was fired early this year over personal expenses she had put on the group's credit card.
She says she became disillusioned because she saw that Acorn was run as the personal fiefdom of Wade Rathke, who founded the group in 1970 and ran it until he stepped down to take over its international operations this summer. Mr. Rathke's departure as head of Acorn came after revelations he'd employed his brother Dale for a decade while keeping from almost all of Acorn's board members the fact that Dale had embezzled over $1 million from the group a decade ago. (The embezzlement was confirmed to me by an Acorn official.)
"Anyone who questioned what was going on was viewed as the enemy," Ms. MonCrief told me. "Just like the mob, no one leaves Acorn happily." She believes the organization does some good but hopes its current leadership is replaced. She may not be alone.
Last August two of Acorn's eight dissident board members, Marcel Reed and Karen Inman, filed suit demanding access to financial records of Citizens Consulting Inc., the umbrella group through which most of Acorn's money flows. Ms. Inman told a news conference this month Mr. Rathke still exercises power over CCI and Acorn against the board's wishes. Bertha Lewis, the interim head of Acorn, told me Mr. Rathke has no ties to Acorn and that the dissident board members were "obsessed" and "confused."
According to public records, the IRS filed three tax liens totaling almost $1 million against Acorn this spring. Also this spring, CCI was paid $832,000 by the Obama campaign for get-out-the-vote efforts in key primary states. In filings with the Federal Election Commission, the Obama campaign listed the payments as "staging, sound, lighting," only correcting the filings after the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review revealed their true nature.
"Acorn needs a full forensic audit," Ms. MonCrief says, though she doesn't think that's likely. "Everyone wants to paper things over until later," she says. "But it may be too late to reform Acorn then." She strongly supports Barack Obama and hopes his allies can be helpful in cleaning up the group "after the heat of the election is gone."
Acorn's Mr. Kettering says the GOP lawsuit "is designed to suppress legitimate voters," and he says Ms. MonCrief isn't credible, given that she was fired for cause. Ms. MonCrief admits that she left after she began paying back some $3,000 in personal expenses she charged on an Acorn credit card. "I was very sorry, and I was paying it back," she says, but "suddenly Acorn decided that . . . I had to go. Since then I have gotten warnings to 'back off' from people at Acorn."
Acorn insists it operates with strict quality controls, turning in, as required by law, all registration forms "even if the name on them was Donald Duck," as Wade Rathke told me two years ago. Acorn whistleblowers tell a different story.
"There's no quality control on purpose, no checks and balances," says Nate Toler, who worked until 2006 as the head organizer of an Acorn campaign against Wal-Mart in California. And Ms. MonCrief says it is longstanding practice to blame bogus registrations on lower-level employees who then often face criminal charges, a practice she says Acorn internally calls "throwing folks under the bus."
Gregory Hall, a former Acorn employee, says he was told on his very first day in 2006 to engage in deceptive fund-raising tactics. Mr. Hall has founded a group called Speaking Truth to Power to push for a full airing of Acorn's problems "so the group can heal itself from within."
To date, Mr. Obama has declined to criticize Acorn, telling reporters this month he is happy with his own get-out-the-vote efforts and that "we don't need Acorn's help." That may be true. But there is no denying his ties with Acorn helped turbocharge his political career.