Monday, February 22, 2010

New York ACORN relaunches (in same office) as New York Communities for Change; Stringer, de Blasio, other elected officials to appear at fundraisers

New York ACORN, Forest City Ratner's key partner in the Atlantic Yards Community Benefits Agreement (for the ever-tenuous promise of subsidy-monopolizing affordable housing) has been renamed New York Communities for Change.

Why? State affiliates of national ACORN, which has been tinged by internal scandal and bad press, have apparently decided to relaunch and decentralize.

In the case of the New York affiliate, at least, the office remains at the same location. It shares an address with the Working Families Party and its many convoluted affiliates--a parallel, to some extent, with the many overlapping entities connected to national ACORN.

Scheduled in the coming weeks are fundraisers featuring local elected officials, including Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, and City Council Member Brad Lander. Organizers are rallying support by pointing to what they see as ACORN's undeserved bad press.

The bad press--and the free rides

I agree that the "sting" perpetrated by some right-wing pranksters posing as a prostitute and pimp generated excessive and misleading coverage, given that news outlets--as documented by Brad Friedman in his The Brad Blog--took at face value video that suggested that "pimp" James O'Keefe appeared in ACORN offices wearing outlandish getup.

(Greg Brock, the Times Senior Editor/Standards, gave Friedman an even less convincing response than he's shown to me.)

Still, it's notable that ACORN has gotten very little bad press concerning two far more legitimate issues: the cover-up of an embezzlement by its founder's brother and the $1.5 million loan/gift bailout of the national organization by developer Forest City Ratner.

As the Washington Post reported 9/20/09:
The liberal political organizing group ACORN faced internal chaos and allegations of financial mismanagement and fraud long before two young conservatives embarrassed the group with undercover videos made at field offices in Washington and across the country.

Internal ACORN documents show an organization in turmoil as last year's presidential election approached, with a board torn over how to handle embezzlement by the founder's brother and growing concern that donor money and pension funds had been plundered in the insider scheme.
(Here's the 6/19/08 memo, thanks to Matthew Vadum of the conservative Capital Research Center, from attorney Elizabeth Kingsley, who warned of "an organizational culture that resembes a family business more than an accountable organization. Here's Vadum's coverage.)

Same office in Brooklyn

The New York Communities for Change web site cites an address and fax number (left), which are the same as the Brooklyn ACORN address and fax number (right, below), as indicated on a now-defunct web page preserved by the Internet Archive.

That address is responsible for much more political activity.

As City Hall News reported 11/30/09, that same address houses the Working Families Party, formed in 1998 by ACORN and two unions, now with more than 60 affiliate organizations. And it also houses the nonprofit lobby group the Working Families Organization, Data & Field Services, the political consulting company founded in 2007 by the Working Families Party, and the nonprofit Progressive America Fund.

There's an ongoing of federal investigation regarding Data & Field Services, which came after a lengthy investigation by City Hall News. Last August, the publication reported:
A complicated web of coordinated activities, shared resources and staff, and quiet money transfers between the Working Families Party, a secretive private company called Data and Field Services and at least six current Council campaigns, as well as Bill de Blasio's campaign for public advocate, appears to have found several ways around the strict city campaign finance laws.
AY not at forefront

The new web site mentions housing, but not Atlantic Yards:
AFFORDABLE HOUSING: Too many New Yorkers struggle to afford housing on a daily basis. NY Communities’ members are pressuring lawmakers to build more units of affordable housing as well as to preserve existing affordable units. Legislation must be expanded to ensure that all new residential developments built in the state include a significant number of units that are affordable to low and moderate income families. NY Communities also demands that the State repeals vacancy decontrol, which for too long has allowed landlords to quickly raise rent on affordable units.
Name change surfaces

The Villager reported in its 1/27/10 issue:
Arthur Schwartz, general counsel for ACORN, tells us that the “rebranding” and “decentralization” of the beleaguered, nationwide, community organizing group — about which he first told The Villager back in October — are already happening. “New York ACORN quietly folded its tents and the staff and members created New York Communities for Change,” Schwartz said last week. Also, he added, California ACORN has a new name — the acronym for which is something like A.C.C. — and Massachusetts ACORN is now New England United for Justice.
The need for the decentralization goes well beyond the "sting;" rather, it reflects ACORN's internal disarray. In California, the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment explains:
We, the California leadership, staff and members who have been working with ACORN, believe that ACORN, both locally and nationally, has been a tremendous force advancing the interests of low-income and working families in this country. At the same time, very real internal mistakes have been made and vicious politically motivated attacks have led to right-wing activists digging through our trash and editing undercover videos to tell a lie so malicious that, if it were true, would upset any citizen.

...Unlike ACORN, ACCE was formed intentionally as a California nonprofit public benefit corporation, which means that by design, it will be subject to strict regulatory oversight by the California Department of Justice. Also unlike ACORN, ACCE will qualify as a “social welfare organization” for federal tax purposes, which means that by design, it will be subject to additional operational and reporting requirements imposed by federal tax law.
The web site of New York Communities for Change, while still in formation, includes no similar statement clarifying the distinction between it and ACORN.

The Los Angeles Times reported 1/13/10 on the concerns of ACORN's former California affiliate:
[Former head organizer Amy] Schur said California members were looking for local control and were frustrated by a lack of transparency. In 2008, it was revealed that top ACORN leaders had tried to hide the embezzlement of nearly $1 million from the organization nine years ago by the brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke.
Note that ACORN critics at BigGovernment.com were not impressed with the makeover.

Fundraisers coming

According to the NY Real Estate Blog published by the law firm of Finkelstein Newman Ferrara, numerous elected officials and local luminaries are inviting people to a fundraiser in support of New York Communities for Change (formerly NY-ACORN) on March 4, hosted by Debra Cooper, a member of the New York County Democratic Committee.

Those officials include Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and state Senators Daniel Squadron, Liz Krueger, and Jose Serrano. The invitation states:
Please join us for a presentation and discussion on New York Communities for Change, an independent coalition of community organizations dedicated to protecting the rights of all New Yorkers, improving our neighborhoods and organizing for social justice. New York Communities for Change is a newly created local and independent organization dedicated to continuing the great work accomplished in our neighborhoods by the former ACORN affiliates of New York City.
While it may be formally independent of national ACORN, there certainly seem to be overlaps with the former New York ACORN.

And in Brooklyn

A similar event, billed as a discussion and fundraiser, will be held on Thursday, February 25, at the Brooklyn home of Dorothy Siegel. According to City Hall News, Siegel is treasurer of the Working Families Party, chair of the Working Families Party South Brooklyn Club, and the treasurer of the Working Families Organization, a WFP affiliate.

(ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis, according to City Hall News, stepped down as the WFP co-chair a year ago, though the news surfaced only recently.)

Siegel's invitation states:
The topic is ACORN, how it's reorganizing itself across the country, and its new manifestation, New York Communities for Change. [City Council Member] Brad Lander, Bill DeBlasio and others will make a presentation and answer questions.

I'm sure you've followed ACORN's travails, and particularly the right-wing attacks leveled at the organization, across the last couple of years. I've attached two articles that I think are good summaries and useful reminders about why we should value ACORN's work and why we MUST fight back against TVRWC (The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy) that is using manufactured ACORN sins to undermine progressives and progressive change in this country.
Sorting through it all

Note to readers: from this point on, the broader ACORN story spins down a rabbit hole. Without an in-depth grounding in the entire ACORN saga, it's tough to definitively sort through all the charges, counter-charges and reports, even ones with official heft. I'm most confident in my analysis of ACORN's role regarding Atlantic Yards.

The CRS report

One article Siegel passed on, from Esquire and dated 1/5/10, is headlined Is This McCarthyism 2.0? Inside the Right's Battle with ACORN:
Remember all the slanderous things you heard about ACORN in 2008 and 2009? Republicans accused the group of "massive voter fraud," kicking off what literally seemed like a million headlines along the lines of "More Acorn Fraud Comes to Light" and "Bill O'Reilly Asks if ACORN Voter Fraud Got Al Franken Elected." Eventually, the drumbeat of scandal got so bad that Congress pulled ACORN's funding.

Well, heading into 2010, the Congressional Research Service has — surprise, surprise! — issued a report saying that it found "no evidence of fraudulent voting or of violations of federal financing rules by the group in the past five years."
Note that the report was based on news accounts, as Vadum pointed out, though his signal example of error was somewhat off.

The other article

The other article, headlined The Acorn Scandal Offers Key Lessons to All Charities, was written by John Atlas and Peter Dreier for the 12/10/09 Chronicle of Philanthropy. Atlas, president of the National Housing Institute, is working on Seeds of Change, a history of Acorn that Vanderbilt University Press will publish in 2010.

(I've critiqued Atlas's justification of ACORN's role in the Atlantic Yards deal. Atlas and Dreier wrote a defense of ACORN in the May/June 2003 issue of Shelterforce.)

Dreier, a professor of politics and director of the urban and environmental policy program at Occidental College, is the co-author of the study Manipulating the Public Agenda: Why Acorn Was the News, and What the News Got Wrong.

Note that Dreier, according to his bio (cited here and here) been a consultant to ACORN, though not paid (cited here).

The press and ACORN

The study (PDF) Dreier co-authored points to too little journalism of verification:
Although ACORN is involved in many community activities around the country, including efforts to improve housing, wages, access to credit, and public education, the dominant story frame about ACORN was “voter fraud.” The “voter fraud” frame appeared in 55% of the 647 news stories about the community organization in 15 mainstream news organizations during 2007 and 2008. The news media stories about ACORN were overwhelmingly negative, reporting allegations by Republicans and conservatives.

...The mainstream news media failed to fact‐check persistent allegations of “voter fraud” despite the existence of easily available countervailing evidence. The media also failed to distinguish allegations of voter registration problems from allegations of actual voting irregularities. They also failed to distinguish between allegations of wrongdoing and actual wrongdoing.
Without being able to fact-check the report, I'll say it seems convincing, but the authors soft-pedal the embezzlement story.

Other frames in ACORN stories


The report notes that the “voter fraud” narrative frame dominated the two years of coverage, while two other frames (ACORN was the source of the mortgage scandal and ACORN was getting a government bailout) got some traction, and this one did not:
The New York Times gave this the most coverage of any news organization studied. For the most part, the story didn’t become part of the larger 2008 election narrative. See Stephanie Strom, “Acorn Working on Deal to Sever Ties with Founder,” New York Times, October 16, 2008, p. 28.
Well, this fourth frame, the embezzlement, deserved to be a larger story because, as the authors of the study fail to acknowledge, ACORN covered it up.

The conclusion

The report concludes that conservatives drove the news:
This study of ACORN reveals the agenda‐setting effect of the news (the news tells us what to think about), and news framing (the news tells us how to think about it). These two phenomena vaulted poorly‐verified stories into the news agenda, and created narratives of a national voter fraud scandal and conspiracy from what were essentially localized problems of workers registering voters and of ACORN flagging examples of questionable applications to the appropriate officials, as required by law. Of course, those kinds of stories and narrative framing didn’t make it into the news media all by themselves. Conservative opinion entrepreneurs, along with the Republican Party, maintained a steady barrage of words and images to get their anti‐ACORN ideas into the media and influence the agenda‐setting and news‐framing activities of the media.
That's a legitimate point. But haven't the media been too easy on ACORN regarding the well-verified embezzlement and the well-verified bailout? Consider the New York Times's parenthetical mention of the latter.

A footnote on funding

The report contains a curious description of how ACORN works and is funded:
At the same time, ACORN recognizes the limits of protest as a tactic as well as the limits of community organizing as a strategy. One of ACORN’s strengths is its combination of “inside” and “outside” tactics and strategies. ACORN’s activists and leaders often work both inside the system (organizing the poor to participate in politics) and outside the system (recognizing the need for protest and confrontation).

ACORN has also learned to forge partnerships with some corporations, banks, and politicians whom it at one time opposed, recognizing that successful organizing campaigns involve negotiation, compromise, and winning over new allies.
Could that encompass the signing of the Affordable Housing Memorandum of Understanding regarding Atlantic Yards, unswerving support for the project (however untethered to reality), and a $1.5 million bailout from Forest City Ratner?

The Harshbarger report

For example, ACORN announced in December 2009 the results of a report it commissioned:
An independent report examining the undercover videos filmed in offices of the national anti-poverty group ACORN states the employees portrayed in the videos did not engage in any illegal activity.

The report by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger calls for the organization to take nine steps to strengthen its management and oversight structures as part of a "roadmap for reform and renewal" in order to regain public trust shaken by the video controversy.
Here's one section:
As part of our investigation, we examined and evaluated ACORN’s management, administration and governance. ACORN’s governance and managerial weaknesses are deeply rooted in the policy and philosophy of the founder and his leadership team, and stem from the errors and poor judgments they made. The reform leadership, many of whom also served in the Rathke era, is now reaping what Rathke sowed, in combination with the fallout from their own failure to question or challenge him, and their inability to transform ACORN quickly and completely after taking over.
And what about the ACORN 8?

The most interesting critique came not from the some of ACORN's harshest critics but from libertarian (more or less) blogger Mike Volpe, who, writing on 12/10/09, pointed to the failure to acknowledge internal critics who split off as the ACORN 8:
Here's all you need to know about the Harshbarger report. It laid most of the blame for ACORN's current troubles on former chief organizer Wade Rathke even though no one that worked on the report even attempted to speak to Wade Rathke. Furthermore, most of the problems and solutions identified by the report were first identified by ACORN 8 or members of the organization and yet, again, no one that worked on the report talked to ACORN 8 or any single member of the group. Worse than that, the report congratulates ACORN for taking tangible steps toward correcting the problems since Rathke's removal even though members of ACORN 8 were removed from the board of ACORN when they tried to sound the alarm on all of this. That all happened after Wade Rathke was removed.
Then again, see ACORN whistleblower--and source of the FCR bailout information--Anita MonCrief's criticism of the ACORN 8 and Volpe's response.

Also see the critique from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), which notes, among other things, that ACORN's financial statements were bypassed.

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