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ACORN circles the wagons

After a videotape scandal, some Los Angeles members say the political attacks have pushed them to work harder for the activist group.

September 24, 2009|Kate Linthicum

ACORN staffers were suspicious of the young couple that swaggered into the community organizing group's downtown Los Angeles office last summer seeking tax help, one claiming to be a USC student, the other a prostitute on the run from an abusive pimp in Miami.

When the woman refused an offer to be taken to a battered women's shelter, the staffers dismissed the incident as a "joke" and asked the pair to leave.

Nobody alerted other Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now offices of the strange behavior because staffers couldn't fathom that the incident might be a part of something larger, said Nathan Henderson-James, ACORN's online organizer.

"It was failure of imagination," Henderson-James said, "and failure of cynicism."

There's no lack of cynicism at ACORN now, two weeks after Fox News first aired secretly recorded videotapes in which a couple of undercover conservative activists -- apparently the same ones who visited the Los Angeles office -- appear to receive advice on tax evasion, human smuggling and child prostitution from ACORN employees in Maryland, California, New York and Washington, D.C.

ACORN staff in Los Angeles have emerged from the controversy tight-lipped, weary of outsiders and determined not to make the same mistakes as their colleagues.

And some of the office's 9,000 members say the attacks have pushed them to work harder on behalf of the group.

"They haven't hurt us like they think they did," said Daniel Leary, a member who helps lead ACORN's Foreclosure Fighters, a group that assists people facing eviction. "Our anger makes us more focused. Now we know the mission at hand."

Critics charge that that adversarial mind-set, which helped make ACORN one of the most formidable community organizing groups in the country, may also prevent the group from conducting an honest reckoning with any flaws that the videotapes may have revealed.

"They have a very bunker mentality," said Marcel Reid, a former national ACORN board member who left the organization because she had problems with its leadership. "They perceive everyone as a threat. You're either with them or against them, and there's no space in between."

That mentality has evolved out of necessity, Reid points out, because of the nature of ACORN's work and politics. The organization, which advocates for higher minimum wages, access to affordable housing and increased voter registration in low-income communities, has been a target of the right for years.

Critics say the group has a radical agenda and point to the embezzlement from the organization of nearly $1 million by the brother of ACORN's founder nine years ago as proof that it is mismanaged.

Critics have complained about ACORN's voter registration effort during the 2008 presidential election, and former ACORN canvassers in several states have been charged with falsifying voting forms.

But nothing has provoked as much controversy as the videotapes. Outrage led Congress to cut federal funding for ACORN last week. House Republicans are looking into the group's financial activities. And more than a dozen state and local authorities say they too will scrutinize the group.

At the ACORN's well-worn office in downtown Los Angeles, staffers have been working overtime doing damage control, talking to reporters during the day and community members at night, said Amy Schur, the group's lead organizer in California.

"People see this for what it is," she said. "They see that there are big-pocketed forces in this nation that want to bring our organization down. Our communities are used to being attacked."

Schur acknowledges that the staffers on the tapes erred and thinks it's right that they were fired. But, she said, "the staff who fell for this ridiculous charade are victims. Since when do you indict an entire organization based on the actions of a couple of employees who were victims of what essentially was a sting operation?"

Shortly after the tapes first aired, ACORN's chief executive, Bertha Lewis, announced that she was disappointed in the staffers featured in the videos and said the organization would freeze its social service programs until an independent investigator (later named as former Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Scott Harshbarger) could complete an inquiry.

Aside from those gestures, ACORN has not appeared particularly contrite. Instead, it has come out swinging.

Lewis released a statement blaming the House's decision to cut funding on "a multiyear political assault stemming variously from the Bush White House, Fox News and other conservative quarters."

And on Wednesday, ACORN filed a lawsuit against James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles in Baltimore, saying the audio portion of the video the pair made at ACORN's office there was obtained illegally. (ACORN officials in California say they are considering a similar suit.) Maryland and California require two-party consent to create sound recordings.

Members have also taken it upon themselves to defend the organization. Debora Beard, 53, who became a member last year, said she had faced questions about ACORN since the tapes surfaced.

"I've talked to some co-workers since this all happened," Beard said. "When they come at me, I say, 'Have you heard about all the good things ACORN has done?' "

Beard, a teacher's assistant, said she told them about ACORN's help in getting streets repaved and parks built. Beard said media reports on the scandal had painted a narrow view of ACORN and hadn't mentioned the work it did to protect low-income homeowners like herself.

Beard and her husband, Tommy, 58, joined ACORN last year after they received an eviction notice requiring them to leave their Watts home of 24 years. ACORN's housing counselors taught them how to better negotiate with lenders, Beard said, and they avoided foreclosure.

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kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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