The Minnesota ACORN office is on the second floor of a nondescript St. Paul brick office building that also houses the Green Party of Minnesota.
When I climbed the steps there at University and Raymond avenues and passed by one of the ACORN Housing Office doors, I heard an employee say: “The media will probably be coming soon.”
That was my cue. “The media’s here,” I said.
With all the flurry of action in Washington over the recent national ACORN scandal, and Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s quick executive decision to end all state funding for the group (although there’s apparently been none since May, 2008), we wanted to look at what the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now does here in Minnesota.
“We can’t say anything,” said the woman behind the desk.
“Can’t someone tell me about all the things you do in Minnesota? How about the good things?”
“No. You have to call Washington.”
“Do they know better than the folks here what happens in Minnesota?”
“That’s who you have to call.”
I did and left a message, but no calls back from national officials.
Just got a call from Chris Stinson, Minnesota ACORN’s political director, who said it’s been a tough week, but the organization plans to continue its core work of building power in low-income communities.
The local group, he said, is most proud of its efforts to help get tough anti-predatory lending legislation passed in Minnesota in 2007.
“The financial crisis has been bad, but without that legislation it would have been much worse in Minnesota,” Stinson said.
And he notes that in addition to voter registration work last fall, volunteers also knocked on 100,000 doors in the Twin Cities before the election to remind people to vote, and to “be sure the low-income neighborhoods were heard in the election.”
“Most of our work here since the last election has been finding folks most at risk for losing their homes, and getting them into loan counseling,” he said. “We’ve saved at least 100 homes in Minneapolis already, with financial literacy training and with negotiations with mortgage servicers.”
Stinson said: “Michele Bachmann and her ilk want people to think we are financed mainly by state and federal dollars. We’re not. There was some foreclosure work supported by HUD, but the majority of our funding comes from our members.”
He said there are about 30,000 members in Minnesota, and dues are $10 per month.
ACORN in Minnesota
MPR did report a statement from Sunday Alabi, a member of the board of directors for Minnesota ACORN:
ACORN and its affiliated organizations receive no funding from the state of Minnesota.
It really isn’t fair that the Governor attack the good work we have done here in Minnesota, just because of the indefensible action of a handful of employees in other states.
I can assure you that the Minnesota chapter of ACORN is taking every step possible, including participating in our national outside audit of our staffing and training, to make sure that our frontline staff is doing everything in the most professional manner possible.
It is disappointing that the Governor is taking this easy political potshot instead of finding out the facts. I encourage him to come to look at the work that we are doing in the state:
-Minnesota ACORN fought for and Governor Pawlenty signed one of the strongest anti-predatory lending laws in the country.
-Minnesota ACORN helped tens of thousands of low income and minority Minnesotans apply to become registered to voters last year.
-Over the years, ACORN has helped thousands of Minnesotan become first time home-buyers, avoid foreclosure, to speak up for the needs of their communities.
And Sherman Wilburn, the ACORN Minnesota board chair, told the Star Tribune: “I think we all realize this is a political issue. This is to stifle us and segregate moderate to low-income individuals.
ACORN’s work in the state
We do know that ACORN Minnesota has seven chapters: three in Minneapolis, three in St. Paul and one At-Large, and they provide:
• Housing counseling: one-on-one mortgage loan counseling, first-time homebuyer classes, and help to clients trying to obtain affordable mortgages through its lending partnerships.
• Free tax preparation for low- and moderate-income families in partnership with the IRS Volunteer Income Tax Preparation (VITA) program. (Fraudulent tax counseling is the allegation in the latest scandal, on the East Coast, not here.
• Counseling about protection from predatory lending.
And they say they’ve:
• “Built powerful, community organizations, committed to social and economic justice and won victories on thousands of campaigns through direct action, negotiation, legislative advocacy and voter participation.
• “ACORN members participate in local meetings, actively campaign, elect leadership from the neighborhood level up, and pay the organization’s core expenses through membership dues and grassroots fundraisers.
• “ACORN’s neighborhood chapters become more united as they rally together on campaigns such as Better Schools, Predatory Lending, Health Care and other issues affecting their communities.”
And, of course, they help gather voter registrations.
Last year, Minnesota ACORN claimed that it registered about 43,000 voters, about 75 percent of the state’s new registrations.
And until the recent tax preparation scandal, it was the election registration issue that caused most of the group’s problems, here and nationally.
In May, ACORN was charged in Nevada with paying canvassers only if they registered at least 20 voters per shift and providing bonuses of $5 for registering more than 21. Under Nevada law, it is illegal to attach incentives to such work, in part because it encourages canvassers to submit fraudulent forms, Secretary of State Ross Miller told the New York Times.
Acorn’s national spokesman, Scott Levenson, called the indictments “political grandstanding” by Mr. Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, both Democrats.
Mr. Levenson said Acorn had fired both employees and has cooperated with investigators.
“This is in complete violation of Acorn national policy, and to indict us is a clear case of blaming the victim,” Mr. Levenson said. “We had an errant employee who violated our policy and he was ordered to stop.”
In the Twin Cities, elections officials in Ramsey and Hennepin County have noted possible problems with some voter registrations turned in by ACORN, said Joe Mansky, Ramsey County’s elections head.
“It’s fair to say in the past two election cycles, 2006 and 2008, we and Hennepin County, have been aware of some problems with ACORN registration cards,” he said. “We examine them closely, and in some cases it’s appeared they didn’t fill the forms out themselves. We’ve sent those on to the county attorney.”
At the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, spokesman Paul Gustafson said that over the past year, more than 200 cases of suspected irregularities in voter registration have been referred to the office. To date, they’ve charged about 25 people with felonies — often because felons unable to vote have voted — but that none of those have involved ACORN employees or volunteer workers.
Last fall, the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said it was investigating whether a voter-registration processing lapse at the Minnesota ACORN office would call for criminal prosecution. A malfunctioning scanner at ACORN’s St. Paul offices in August created a backlog that caused a batch of cards to be submitted late to the Hennepin County Elections Board.
At the time, Deputy Hennepin County Attorney Pat Diamond said if the county finds cause for prosecution, it likely would focus on individuals. A check Thursday found no apparent progress on the investigation.
According to reports in the Pioneer Press and Politico:
… the video in which employees of ACORN affiliates in Baltimore, New York and Washington were secretly recorded giving tax advice to two conservative activists dressed as a pimp and a prostitute.
In one of the recordings, the “pimp” apparently seeks advice on how to set up a brothel, while the “prostitute” notes that she needs to bring in 14 girls from El Salvador to work. The tape apparently shows the ACORN employees continuing to advise the pair even after this information is given.
Although it fired several of the employees and is ordering internal and independent investigations, ACORN said the videos were made illegally and plans to sue the two filmmakers, the Web site and Fox News. The agency also plans to halt its service programs nationwide.
ACORN Housing said Tuesday that it was “horrified” by the footage and that the employees’ actions “violated the moral and ethical standards that we have set for ourselves.”
Gov. Pawlenty quickly responded with a letter Wednesday to the Minnesota Management and Budget commissioner, telling him to stop funding to ACORN unless the state is legally obligated to provide such funding.
Commissioner Tom Hanson soon reported:
“At Governor Pawlenty’s direction, Minnesota Management & Budget has begun a review of the state’s accounting system … Initial findings show the last transaction with this organization was in 2008. The table below lists all state transactions readily available with ACORN:
|Payment Date||Agency||Sum of Payment|
|12/18/1996||MN Housing Finance Agency||$ 10,000|
|12/28/1998||MN Housing Finance Agency||10,000|
|10/09/2003||MN Housing Finance Agency||14,000|
|06/08/2004||MN Housing Finance Agency||14,000|
|11/09/2004||MN Housing Finance Agency||21,000|
|05/16/2005||MN Housing Finance Agency||21,000|
|11/20/2007||MN Housing Finance Agency||7,500|
|05/09/2008||MN Housing Finance Agency||7,500|
Later, Pawlenty also said he wants to stop ACORN from getting future state grants or federal stimulus dollars being routed through Minnesota.
Pawlenty said there is “sufficient reason to be concerned about their behavior, their ethics and their motives.”
Minnesota DFL Party Chair Brian Melendez responded Thursday to the governor’s actions with near glee:
“Once again, Governor Pawlenty is misusing official resources in a desperate attempt to score political points — and once again, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. First he panicked over the President’s speech to students on the first day of school, before even reading the speech — which turned out to be about encouraging children to think critically and value education, not about ‘brainwashing’ as the governor ignorantly predicted. Next, Governor Pawlenty overreacted by boycotting the multi-partisan budget summit — which turned out to be an important first step toward solving Minnesota’s fiscal problems, where even Republican leaders criticized the governor’s absence. Now, again, the governor has leaped before he looks, clearly more concerned with scoring political points than with dealing in reality.
“Yesterday’s directive is just the governor’s latest knee-jerk political reaction to the topic du jour. While the governor’s action might make sense if the state actually had any dealings with ACORN, it’s not too much to expect that he find the answer to that simple question before he tries to leap into executive action.
“It’s bad enough that Governor Pawlenty has begun moving closer and closer to Representative Michele Bachmann’s extreme right-wing ideology. But now he is even adopting her tactic of making politically expedient claims without any factual basis. If the Governor continues to abandon Minnesotans to pursue his national ambitions, and keeps jumping at every nonsensical chance for political opportunism, then he will share yet another trait with Representative Bachmann — total ineffectiveness.”
When the U.S. House voted Thursday to cut all federal funding for ACORN, Bachmann weighed in:
“For several months now, I have been calling for the House to strip taxpayer funding to ACORN and finally, the Democrat majority has come to their senses and done just that. ACORN has been in the news time and time again for violating election laws, but the Democrat majority refused to stop the flow of tax dollars to this organization. The vote today to finally strip them of their funding could not have come soon enough. I hope this vote is followed by a thorough investigation by the IRS, DOJ, and Congress into ACORN’s years of shady activities and abuse of the law and public trust. What a tremendous victory for the taxpayer!”
There hasn’t exactly been a groundswell of support from most liberal Minnesota politicians.
“I do not think that Mayor Rybak has anything to say about ACORN,” said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak’s aide Jeremy Hanson, in reply to a Facebook query.
Congressman Keith Ellison, though, voted against the House defunding plan and told the Star Tribune that lawmakers had turned ACORN into a “political lightning rod.” He said the hidden-camera activities were “completely unacceptable” but said there are better ways to hold the organization accountable.
Congresswoman Betty McCollum was also among the 75 Democrats who voted no on the House action to defund ACORN. Her chief of staff, Bill Harper, told the Strib that the ACORN provision was merely a Republican distraction to the student lending bill being debated.
Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County politics, among other topics. He can be reached at email@example.com.