POLITICS
05/05/2018 13:01 BST | Updated 05/05/2018 20:04 BST

How The ACORN Scandal Seeded Today's Nightmare Politics

Breitbart led the charge, but Democrats delivered the killing blow. Has anyone really learned?

Ji Sub Jeong/HuffPost

It did not occur to Bertha Lewis to be afraid.

She was watching the final presidential debate of 2008, and John McCain had just said something insane. “We need to know the full extent of Senator Obama’s relationship with ACORN, who is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy,” the Arizona Republican proclaimed.

Lewis had been leading ACORN ― the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now ― for about five months. ACORN advocated for the poor. In addition to helping families navigate federal aid programs, the group ran campaigns to improve city sanitation, protested against predatory lenders and registered people to vote. The nation’s top Republican politician had just declared this body of work tantamount to stealing an election.

“It was absurd,” Lewis said in a recent interview. “Those words had no meaning.”

If anything, Lewis reasoned, the attack was probably good news. Republicans had always loathed ACORN, in no small part because poor voters tend to vote Democrat, but open, inflammatory denunciations of the group were generally confined to the talk radio fringe.

Lewis had been bogged down in a top-to-bottom overhaul of ACORN’s financial and managerial structure ever since she accepted her promotion. If GOP leaders were escalating things in October, she figured it meant she was running a solid voter registration operation despite all the paperwork she’d been buried in.

McCain’s debate paranoia wasn’t an isolated outburst. It became the Republican Party’s closing pitch for the 2008 election, amplified in political media. U.S. newspapers published over 1,700 stories on ACORN during October ― more than 10 times the average monthly total so far that year. More than three-fourths of these stories were devoted to allegations of “voter fraud.”

The illegal voting accusations never panned out. But within 18 months, Lewis would be forced to close ACORN’s doors ― exhausted, short-staffed, out of money and, most important, out of allies.

ACORN had survived for more than 40 years. Its sudden collapse was a defining moment in 21st century American politics. The explosive cocktail of racism, dishonesty, incompetence and cowardice that brought down the organization reveals as much about Washington Democrats as it does about the conservative movement. It marked the Republican Party’s full transition from the coded winks and nods of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy” to the bellicose white nativism that defines Donald Trump, and it exposed a Democratic Party establishment unprepared for dirty tricks in the Digital Age and unwilling to defend many of the black voters and activists it claimed to represent.  

Gary Hershorn / Reuters
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) turned ACORN into an enemy during his final presidential debate with Barack Obama in 2008.

After McCain lost the 2008 election, his allegations of a vast ACORN conspiracy to steal the election looked even more preposterous. Nobody could find a single fraudulent vote that had been cast by someone connected to ACORN. But the ACORN story kept bouncing around conservative media anyway. Prosecutors in a few states cited a handful of ACORN employees for shoddy voter registration ― submitting incomplete forms or paperwork with bogus names like “Donald Duck” or “Tony Romo.” In many cases, ACORN itself had flagged the faulty documents before turning them over to state officials, since election laws required that all registration paperwork an organization had collected be turned in. This detail often wasn’t included in the stories.

Then in September 2009, everybody seemed to forget about ACORN voter fraud entirely. Right-wing provocateurs James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles released a batch of undercover videos through Andrew Breitbart’s new website that appeared to show ACORN employees offering to help O’Keefe get away with all kinds of outrages, including dodging tax payments for an underage prostitution ring he claimed he wanted to smuggle into the country. Fox News pumped out updates on the story day after day as more videos were released in a slow trickle. O’Keefe appeared on “Fox & Friends” dressed like a 1970s stereotype of a pimp one morning, and Breitbart and Giles would make Sean Hannity’s show another evening.

It was much juicier than the stale voter fraud story. Both Hannity and Glenn Beck ran segments in which a California ACORN employee supposedly confessed to murdering her husband.

Several formal investigations would later find that, although the undercover videos might have been embarrassing, ACORN workers didn’t violate any laws. The district attorney’s office in Brooklyn, New York, found “no criminality” after a five-month investigation. Neither did the California attorney general’s office. The murder “confession” touted by Fox turned out to be a prank by an ACORN employee who’d caught on to the stunt. (State investigators interviewed her ex-husbands, who were still very much alive.)  

In an interview with HuffPost, O’Keefe said it’s wrong to focus on whether his work uncovered actual criminality.

“It exposed immorality. It exposed soullessness,” he said. “Undercover work is about testing and affirming what people are willing to do.”

O’Keefe has clung to the fact that ACORN workers in Baltimore gave him tax advice for his illegal business, including tips on “how to disguise my 13 underage El Salvadorian sex girls on the tax returns,” as he claimed on Reddit in January.

In fact, after being told the girls didn’t have Social Security numbers, the ACORN worker told O’Keefe that “we can’t use them at all,” according to unedited transcripts originally posted to Breitbart’s site. Confronted about the transcript, O’Keefe said it was still “highly immoral” for ACORN employees to help him report illegal income to the IRS. But even that’s questionable, since illegal income is supposed to be reported to the IRS.

“One of the things a tax preparer has to do when you have a client with illegal income is navigate between reporting the illegal income ― which must be done ― and protecting the client’s right not to incriminate himself,” according to Larry Zelenak, a tax professor at Duke University School of Law.

A crime may well have been committed at the ACORN offices ― by O’Keefe. California state law prohibits non-consensual recordings of confidential conversations. The state granted him immunity from potential charges in exchange for access to his complete recordings, but it didn’t wipe out his liability in civil lawsuits. O’Keefe eventually agreed to pay a $100,000 settlement to a former ACORN employee who had actually contacted the police after O’Keefe’s visit but was portrayed in the video as a willing collaborator. As part of the settlement, O’Keefe said he regretted “any pain” he caused the man.

But Washington didn’t wait around for the facts to come out. On Sept. 14, 2009, the Democratic-controlled Senate voted 83 to 7 to block some federal grants to ACORN. Government funding typically accounted for 10 to 15 percent of ACORN’s annual funding. The group received $48.4 million from the federal government from 2005 to 2009 ― most of it, including a $25 million grant in 2008, for housing counseling and foreclosure mitigation.

On Sept. 17, the House followed suit, with 172 Democrats joining 173 Republicans in voting to defund ACORN, including some of the most progressive voices in the party, such as Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) and John Conyers (D-Mich.).

Today, Democrats don’t like to talk about that vote. Several told HuffPost they didn’t remember how they voted or why they voted the way they did, other than to note the vote occurred amid a rash of scandalous ACORN headlines.

“Democrats panicked and felt like they had to be a part of that,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), one of the 75 Democrats who voted no, told HuffPost.

Democrats had assumed a defensive posture following electoral victories in November 2008 and wanted to focus on their policy agenda, according to Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who missed the vote.

“We’re fighting about Dodd-Frank, we’re fighting about stimulus, we’re fighting about the Affordable Care Act, and we’re fighting about climate change and cap-and-trade,” Connolly said. “Huge battles. Huge! I think the calculus for some of my colleagues was, ‘How much political capital do I want to expend on this when I have these other big ones?’”

But that wasn’t how Republicans saw Democrats at the time. Democrats were on a roll ― they had taken control of Congress in 2006 and pounded Republicans again in 2008. They’d just reclaimed the White House. The GOP was the party of the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis and the bank bailouts. Reeling from these failures, the official Democratic rebuke of ACORN seemed to chart a new course for Republican political strategy in which aggressive attacks from Breitbart and Fox News ― however outlandish ― could force Democrats into concessions.

“In many ways, I feel like this issue was a prelude to how conservatives would weaponize issues going forward in the tea party era that would follow,” said Kurt Bardella, who has worked for both Breitbart and as a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the foremost Republican ACORN opponent in Congress. (Bardella is currently a columnist for HuffPost.)

“ACORN was the only political success Republicans experienced in this period of time,” Bardella said. “I think having a win that the Breitbart side of the world could claim as their own gave them the first real sense that the Republican base was with them more than the politicians, and they could leverage and activate that to play a more impactful role in shaping the direction of the GOP.” 

It exposed immorality. It exposed soullessness. James O'Keefe

A day after the Senate voted to defund ACORN, an incredulous Jon Stewart featured the O’Keefe video on “The Daily Show,” shaming journalists for missing the apparently massive nationwide fraud underway at ACORN. Hadn’t Republicans been warning about the group for years?

“Where the hell were you?” Stewart ranted.

Reporters had, in fact, scrutinized ACORN, turning up a major scandal at the organization the previous year. In July 2008, The New York Times reported that Dale Rathke, the brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke, had embezzled almost $1 million from the organization from 1999 to 2000 and kept it secret from the ACORN board. Rathke was fired, and some funders, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, decided to sever ties with the group. But there was not a rush for the exits. Drummond Pike, the head of the Tides Foundation, personally paid back the embezzlement debt.

The board promoted Lewis from her position in New York’s ACORN office to replace Wade Rathke, and she spent much of the next year auditing finances and reorganizing ACORN’s management structure. As the country’s financial crisis escalated, she beefed up the group’s anti-foreclosure activism, and by the summer of 2009, the stigma from the embezzlement scandal seemed to have faded. Republicans weren’t really harping on it. Instead, Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) were raising a fuss over the possibility that ACORN volunteers might somehow corrupt the census.

The reforms Lewis implemented convinced Dave Beckwith, who was then the executive director of the Needmor Fund, a philanthropy that supports social justice work, that ACORN had turned a corner. “They took organizational internal repair very seriously,” Beckwith told HuffPost. “They changed the role the board played, they became much more transparent about finances and they changed leadership.”

But when the O’Keefe videos hit, ACORN was still in a funding hole. Lewis and other longtime ACORN staffers say the group could have weathered the storm if the Democratic Party hadn’t abandoned it. It wasn’t just a question of losing government grants. The vote to defund ACORN sent a very clear signal to liberal donors that ACORN wasn’t worth defending.

“We tried to engage the philanthropic community in understanding what happened and the degree to which the organization was taking the repair process,” said Beckwith. “And frankly, most were not interested in hearing that story because they had been convinced by a false narrative of corruption and malfeasance.”

By the spring of 2010, the organization was out of money and officially closed its doors.

Other liberal and left-wing organizations also refused to speak out on ACORN’s behalf, Lewis said. When she reached out to Planned Parenthood, which O’Keefe had gone after the year before, she said the reproductive health care nonprofit told her that it didn’t want to help or even be seen together. As Lewis saw it, Planned Parenthood’s leaders seemed to feel like they had “dodged a bullet” in avoiding a congressional funding battle and didn’t want to court any further controversy.

Another ACORN alum, former executive director Steve Kest, says Planned Parenthood didn’t just leave ACORN for dead. It made phone calls to funders and members of Congress on behalf of ACORN ― more than plenty of other liberal groups were willing to do.

“It is clear now that the attack on ACORN was the beginning of a new era of extreme attacks on community-based organizations,” Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Erica Sackin told HuffPost. “None of us, including Planned Parenthood, knew enough or did enough in that moment to expose these video attacks for what they were.”

When a different group of conservatives published videos that purported to show Planned Parenthood negotiating fees for fetal organ tissue in 2015 and Republicans sought to defund group, Democrats and liberals rallied instead of running for cover, offering a  much stronger defense than ACORN had enjoyed.

Lewis thinks this was a matter of optics. While Planned Parenthood serves plenty of low-income black and brown women, it has always deployed accomplished, well-to-do white women as the centerpiece of its public image. Planned Parenthood officials make the rounds at Democratic Party fundraisers and fancy liberal conferences. ACORN hired poor people of color and held sit-ins at bank branches.

“If we had been a community group ― like, stick to your neighborhood, give out some turkeys, give the natives some blankets, do social services, occasionally have a silent march and then kneel down and pray ― that might have been fine,” Lewis said. “The attacks on the organization were all around race …. It was because our constituency was black.”  

Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post via Getty Images
James OKeefe, in an interview with HuffPost, said it's wrong to focus on whether his accusations against ACORN uncovered actual criminality.

The O’Keefe videos dropped about a month after a different ACORN-related bombshell that had gone almost entirely unnoticed. In August 2009, the House Judiciary Committee released thousands of pages of emails and transcripts related to President George W. Bush’s controversial decision to fire several Department of Justice prosecutors in his second term.

The documents revealed that in 2006, after a U.S. attorney in New Mexico refused to file bogus voter fraud charges against an ACORN worker, the Bush administration retaliated by firing him ― an account that corroborated a report from the Justice Department’s inspector general. This was a major scandal. The president had fired prosecutors for refusing to bring a nonsense case against an organization he believed to be a political enemy.

The U.S. attorney scandal was not new in 2009, but the details about the involvement of White House adviser Karl Rove were. Several major news outlets picked up on it ― but nearly all of them missed that Rove’s displeasure with the New Mexico prosecutor wasn’t just about voter fraud. It was about voter fraud and ACORN.

Nearly a decade since the documents were disclosed, however, Rove remains a respected member of the Republican intelligentsia. O’Keefe, though he succeeded where Rove failed, is disgraced. Most of his subsequent undercover projects have fallen flat ― none more dramatically than last year’s attempt to discredit the Alabama women who had credibly accused Senate candidate Roy Moore of having abused or stalked them when they were teenagers.

Several Democrats told HuffPost they didn’t think they would fall for another smear campaign like the one waged against ACORN. O’Keefe and Breitbart were new figures in 2009. People wouldn’t take them seriously today.

“Having been there and done it, I think there’s some wisdom now that would take hold that would perhaps prevent this from happening again,” said Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.), who voted in favor of the 2009 ACORN resolution.

But Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) isn’t so sure.

“We react spontaneously to virtually anything, and sometimes overreact,” Yarmuth said. “The impact of social media has increased exponentially since 2009 where you can get swamped by social media on any particular misstep or issue. The potential for that happening again is greater, not less.”

KAREN BLEIER via Getty Images
CEO Bertha Lewis said ACORN could have weathered the storm if Democrats hadn't turned their backs.

Without ACORN to kick around, the Republican Party’s voter fraud claims have evolved. President Trump claims 3 million to 5 million illegal votes cost him the popular vote in 2016, and he even appointed a commission to investigate the supposed problem. Its work was clearly farcical, and the commission disbanded earlier this year in disarray.

ACORN registered more than 865,000 voters for the 2008 election. While other groups have tried to pick up the slack, there’s a reason Republicans haven’t selected a new organization to serve as the voter fraud boogeyman: nobody is doing the same caliber work on the same scale that ACORN did.

And while just about every possible explanation for Trump’s 77,744-vote margin of victory in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan has been explored to death, almost nobody talks about the effect ACORN might have had in those states.

If Congress has learned any lessons from the ACORN episode, you wouldn’t know it from the legislative record. Each year, government spending bills typically include new bans on funding for ACORN or its successors ― a term with no legal definition. Congress blocked money for ACORN again in its March funding bill.

Issa, who championed the original, successful defunding effort in 2009, told HuffPost that ACORN offshoots might still be at large, though he could not name any. The conservative group Judicial Watch hasn’t raised alarms about an alleged ACORN affiliate receiving federal funds since 2014.

Bardella, the former Issa spokesman, said Republicans had been right to investigate ACORN’s use of federal funds and its finances back in 2009. But he said Issa is probably foolish to raise the specter of ACORN successor groups running amok.

“He’s just talking out of his ass.”