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Amid the turmoil, Minnesota ACORN folks stay mum

The Minnesota ACORN office
MinnPost photo by Joe Kimball
The Minnesota office of ACORN is on the second floor of the Security Buiilding, at University and Raymond avenues in St. Paul.

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.

 

Update
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.

Embattled organization
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.

The video
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.”

Pawlenty’s order
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
10/29/2003 Attorney General 1,300
12/12/2003 Attorney General 500
01/22/2004 Attorney General 2,200
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
Total   $109,000

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.”

Bachmann
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!”

Other pols
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 jkimball@minnpost.com.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 09/18/2009 - 10:33 am.

    Joe,

    Thanks for the report.

    Instead of announcing the “media is here” some undercover journalism should be done. A “MN-60 Minutes report” of the “culture of corruption” that appears to be present at several ACORN offices could be in order. Also, an investigative report of ACORN and its ties to politicians would be interesting.

    I guess we will have to wait until the next video appears.

  2. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 09/18/2009 - 11:47 am.

    Joe – Can you find the Form 990 for ACORN MN. I think that would be very interesting to see the types of expenses and revenues. It is mandatory reporting for tax exempt entities and must be granted access to the public.

    Can you clarify yesterdays Glean report that said ACORN (and now the DFL) are representing that ACORN did not receive any state funding. As your graph clearly shows they do frequently engage in transactions with the state.

  3. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/18/2009 - 02:47 pm.

    Suggestion for a New Rule in both the House and Senate: No resolutions of condemnation or censure until at least two weeks have passed to give members time to learn the FACTS, not just the ACCUSATIONS.

    The two actors and videographer appearing in the few videos that have been released to the media actually tried to pull their trick at a couple dozen of Acorn’s 60-70 offices. At all but the very few offices where Acorn’s counselors went along with the actors’ sting (and have been fired by Acorn), Acorn’s staff members threw them out.

    It is illegal to tape other persons without their knowledge and Acorn has a perfect right to sue.

    Congratulations to Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum for being among the 75 House members who remained rational and respectful in the face of another right-wing attack against a decent and valuable organization.

  4. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/18/2009 - 03:46 pm.

    Some right-wingers (no doubt encouraged by their brainwashers on radio and TV) appear to think that ACORN is Obama’s personal mafia or something similar.

    Wrong. It was founded in 1970 in Little Rock, Arkansas (As much as conservatives would love to blame Bill Clinton for anything that ever happened in Arkansas, he was in law school at Yale at the time. Sorry, guys.) as an advocacy and aid group for low-income people.

    Inquiring minds want to know who paid the fake pimp and prostitute to go around the country trying to entrap ACORN. In the interests of full disclosure, they should also note that most of the offices they went to threw them out and that the Philadelphia office even filed a police report.

    I tried to point all this out on another message board and was accused of defending child prostitution. That’s a typical Republican tactic–if you don’t have the facts on your side, attack from another angle.

  5. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 09/18/2009 - 04:22 pm.

    Karen – is that kind of like disagreeing with the President and being called a racist? It goes both ways. If you can’t even admit to yourself that ACORN at minimum needs an external audit, you’re a hyper partisan. As for the police report the funny thing about that is the the report used the male investigators real name, which in the other video’s he doesn’t give out. It seems very odd that it took that long to come out and used the investigators real name. Seems to good to be true.

  6. Submitted by Joel Jensen on 09/18/2009 - 06:48 pm.

    On any scale you choose, trying to inflate ACORN into some kind of boogie man is laughably pathetic and reeks of a red herring tactic.

    For Minnesota, the annual government expenditure on ACORN activities for those 7 years averages a whopping $15,571 per year. Wow. Don’t get lost in the State Budget rounding errors.

    That would be less than our Federal government paid every 2 weeks for each Blackwater mercenary.

    Ever notice how the programs to help the poor or middle class get so much avid scrutiny from folks like this faux pimp/prostitute and their sponsors or from members of the GOP who protend to be all riled up by the waste of government money, but the huge dollars mis-spent, stolen or lost by others and the rampant outrageous and continuing problems of those other programs never quite get their attention?

    Wonder why that is?

    For instance, the aforementioned Blackwater:

    “Costs to Taxpayers.

    Using Blackwater instead of U.S. troops to protect embassy officials is expensive. Blackwater charges the government $1,222 per day for the services of a private military contractor. This is equivalent to $445,000 per year, over six times more than the cost of an equivalent U.S. soldier. In total, Blackwater has received over $1 billion in federal contracts from 2001 through 2006, including more than $832 million under two contracts with the State Department to provide protective services in Iraq.”

    So even if we doubled what we paid our real soldiers, we could still afford 3 of those real soldiers for every Blackwater “agent” we paid over there?

    And that’s just through 2006.

    http://graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/national/20071001121609.pdf

    “The Bush administration predicted only $2 billion taxpayer dollars would be needed to rebuild Iraq. The tab is $51 billion and counting – half of that amount was spent on private security contractors.”
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/02/01/iraq/main4767378.shtml

    So, even if all the Federal grants and Federal appropriations for all the ACORN programs over the last 10 years added up to $31 Million (as suggeested by Cong. Boehner’s office) that’s 3% of what the Feds paid Blackwater in 1/2 the time.

    But even Blackwater is really just peanuts. How about KBR , who through its negligent homicide is killing our own soldiers in Iraq by electrocuting them in their showers. KBR collected $24 Billion for this kind of work in Iraq just since that war started and in 2008 KBR was awarded another 10 year, $150 Billion dollar deal (presumably as a reward for KBR’s excellent and cost-effective work from that Republican Administration so dedicated to free-market princples.)

    Death by shower:
    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/03/26/national/main4893929.shtml
    KBR Contracts:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/24/world/middleeast/24contract.html

    ACORN has it problems, but other than its role in encouraging poor folks to vote and trying to keep them in decent housing, there’s not much reason those problems would merit the kind of white-hot spotlight currently being directed at it by the GOP, including our own Governor.

    Maybe ACORN should hook up with some Wall Street war profiteer. That seems to make you invisible to and immune from criticism of Republicans like these.

  7. Submitted by Terry Hayes on 09/18/2009 - 07:06 pm.

    Bernice—you hit the nail on the head.
    Karen—excellent suggestion, finding out who paid these ‘conservative activists.’
    An ACORN program showed me how to buy a house ten years ago. Thanks to them, I have a good house and a decent mortgage. They do good work. If Pawlenty had any integrity, he’d be standing behind them. Instead he’s the first to jump on the bandwagon. What a complete idiot, second only to Michele Bachmann.

  8. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/18/2009 - 09:08 pm.

    I’m sure that every “import/export agency” that specializes in procuring young, female “immigrants” is very grateful that this whole thing has been properly debunked by the American left.

    This whole affair has to have been most unsettling.

  9. Submitted by Karen Sandness on 09/18/2009 - 09:26 pm.

    Thank you for proving my point, Tom.

  10. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/18/2009 - 10:20 pm.

    In the legal profession its called entrapment.
    It would never hold up in a court of law.

    But having said that, its a lost cause in the court of public opinion.

  11. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/18/2009 - 10:25 pm.

    Joe, Can you find the Form 990 for ACORN MN? After all it is “public information” right?

    Use some of that good ole personal initiative and do your own research. It will give you the opportunity to use some facts in your next post.

  12. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/18/2009 - 10:30 pm.

    My apologies to Mr. Kimball. I was referring to Mr. Joe Johnson with regard to the form 990….

  13. Submitted by Joe Johnson on 09/19/2009 - 08:14 am.

    Richard – I’m a tax accountant and I’m well aware that 990’s are public info, but ACORN operates under 80 or so entities some federal tax exempt some not. They have no audit and the only 990 I can find is one in LA that had a massive 400k in revenue and Bertha was not the CEO. So you could say I’ve looked. Furthermore, I thought Kimball could add some value if he found out what entity is operating in MN. Would you feel differently if you knew that the MN branch was a for profit? In that case there may not be a 990. I have also found the Minnpost 990 and the Minnesota Independents 990 both very interesting. You know what they say about assume

  14. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/19/2009 - 01:00 pm.

    Addendum to #3:

    MSNBC reported further information this morning (Saturday) on the woman seen in the tape to be apparently agreeing to help the two actors purchase a home to be used for a brothel staffed by young women/teens from other countries.

    Not shown on the carefully edited tape was the Acorn employee saying, more than once, such remarks as, “You’re kidding me, right?” She finally just went along with what she thought was a joke.

    Which it turned out to be. A bad one.

  15. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 09/19/2009 - 03:38 pm.

    “until the recent tax preparation scandal”

    This is the kind of loose statement all too typical of how this story is being summarized.

    According to what I saw, a tax counselor advised the “pimp” and “ho” that they needed to report earnings and file a tax return and then proceeded to give the clueless youngsters a brief rundown of what it meant to file as a business.

    If there was any tax preparation performed, you can be sure it would be included in the edits of the video. In fact, it would be interesting to see if the actors received any actual help that in any way advanced their pretend enterprise.

  16. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/19/2009 - 04:18 pm.

    Joe, Personally I believe that ACORN is a big old red herring for the fringe to latch their teeth onto. Like a dog chasing his tail that’s what the seven percenter’s will be doing.

    Acorn acts as a torch to those that can’t wait for Obama’s term to end. It fires up the base and distracts from the fact that the GOP have miscast history to such a degree that it is almost as if “conservatives” were not in complete control of government from 2001 through 2007 when many of these economic issues were born.

    I think conservative anger is misplaced. To a large extent, Obama is only cleaning up messes created by Bush. This is not to say Obama hasn’t made mistakes himself, but even they can be blamed on Bush insofar as Bush’s incompetence led to the election of a Democrat. If he had done half as good a job as most Republicans have talked themselves into believing he did, McCain would have won easily.

    But who knows making little rocks from big rocks could be a political strategy.

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