Special Report

Bertha Lies

ACORN chief organizer Bertha Lewis's recent appearance at the National Press Club was an exercise in denial -- and worse.

By 10.20.09

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ACORN chief organizer Bertha Lewis's recent appearance at the National Press Club was an exercise in denial.

Lewis deserved to receive an Academy Award nomination for her virtuoso performance in which she not only depicted ACORN as an innocent victim but also as a whistleblower that tried to nip the subprime mortgage crisis in the bud.

Even the Washington Post's Dana Milbank couldn't resist beating Lewis up:

In creativity, the ACORN boss's denials were matched only by her assignments of blame. She blamed her predecessor: "I don't think it's fair to judge me, as I'm cleaning up a previous administration." She blamed the powerful: "We've seen this play before, whether it was the civil rights movement or whatever, when you organize poor people to have real power, what you do is often turned against you." And most of all, she blamed Republicans: "The RNC…because we've been inflated as the boogeyman, raises almost $2 million a day, every day, and this form of modern-day ACORN McCarthyism has got to stop."

Lewis's statement about the Republican National Committee was immediately undermined by the blissfully ignorant and frequently tone-deaf RNC chairman Michael Steele who defended ACORN.

In a video of Steele from a Sept. 21 speech that surfaced on a left-wing website the day of Lewis's speech, Steele praises Lewis. "The current head of the organization, she's done a phenomenal job getting out in front of it," Steele said. "I applaud her. I take her at her word that she wants to work to make sure that the bad apples are thrown out."

Steele said he respects ACORN's history of "working in the community and helping the poor."

So much for the Republican boogeyman.

Lewis didn't say much about her own role in covering up the nearly $1 million embezzlement perpetrated by founder Wade Rathke's brother. After news of the theft broke, Lewis drove out honest ACORN national board members who dared to ask questions.

Lewis, who has high-level contacts within the Marxist governments of Venezuela and Bolivia, also glossed over her ties to the radical Working Families Party in New York state and to President Obama's political director Patrick Gaspard.

Let's deal with some of the major lies in the speech. (Note that by "lie" I mean an untruth stated by a person who knows at the time he or she makes the statement that it is untrue. PolitiFact and other so-called fact-checking operations that follow ACORN use a more much flexible definition for "lie.")

LIE #1: Lewis claimed no one voted fraudulently in 2008 presidential election "because of an ACORN registration." She added, "This voter fraud or the allegations of voter fraud was to have hung a shadow over the presidential election. And it proved to be an utter fabrication and a work of fiction that was created by the people who wrote it."

In fact, vote fraud happened in Ohio in 2008 and ACORN was smack dab in the middle of it.

Darnell Nash of Cleveland, Ohio, was registered to vote by ACORN nine times for last year's election. Nash cast a fraudulent ballot and was convicted of vote fraud and voter registration fraud. He's currently serving a six-month prison term.

A spokesman for Cleveland's Democratic prosecutor Bill Mason told me earlier this month that a local investigation of ACORN remains wide open.

The conviction of Nash, a cross-dressing prostitute known by several aliases, is hugely significant for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that ACORN has long maintained that vote fraud, as opposed to the lesser crime of voter registration fraud, essentially never happens.

LIE #2: Lewis claimed ACORN has "500,000 member families."

ACORN's own website claims the group has "over 400,000 member families." Of course, 500,000 is more than 400,000, but you can't just round up from 400,000. Moreover, ACORN national president Maude Hurd reported in the ACORN entry of Erica Payne's reference manual for left-wing activists, The Practical Progressive, "more than 400,000 members."

LIE #3: Lewis deceptively understated her group's influence in creating the subprime mortgage bubble and argued that ACORN was a voice in the wilderness demanding that banks adhere to sensible underwriting guidelines.

"We had to negotiate with banks, force them -- force them -- to adhere to the Community Reinvestment Act which said, you needed to make sound loans in these low income neighborhoods, sound loans. I dare say, if some of our biggest financial institution[s] had followed the underwriting guidelines that ACORN put out for sound loans, we would not be in this foreclosure crisis right now."

Whatever nebulous, perfunctory calls ACORN put out for banks to be financially responsible are outweighed by ACORN's decades of demands through in-your-face direct-action techniques that banks lend money to homebuyers who had no business trying to buy homes. ACORN has long considered sit-ins at banks and having angry mobs surround bank executives' homes fair play.

ACORN periodically feigns shock that lenders dare to charge higher interest rates to riskier borrowers as in a 2004 report titled "Separate and Unequal 2004: Predatory Lending in America," which found that low-income borrowers were "disproportionately plague[d]" by subprime loans.

LIE #4: Lewis claimed ACORN had an "average budget" between "$20 [million] and $25 million a year for everything, all of the offices combined."

ACORN national president Maude Hurd reported in the ACORN entry of The Practical Progressive that ACORN's annual budget last year was $50 million. That's double the figure quoted by Lewis, and even $50 million is probably an understatement.

LIE #5: Lewis claimed that after news of the nearly $1 million embezzlement by the founder's brother broke last year, ACORN "immediately hired outside professionals, no organizers. We may be brilliant organizers, but we needed real financial professionals, real legal professionals, to come in."

If ACORN actually hired such people, it has kept evidence of those hirings under wraps. My ACORN sources aren't aware of such professionals being brought aboard.

Surely Lewis isn't referring to Elizabeth Kingsley, an attorney with Harmon, Curran, Spielberg Eisenberg LLP, who issued a prophetic legal memo to ACORN on June 19, 2008, the day before ACORN's national board ousted ACORN founder organizer Wade Rathke.

Spurred on by Kingsley, the national board appointed a panel to investigate the embezzlement and the cover-up to which Lewis herself is a party. When members of the panel, including ACORN 8 founders Marcel Reid and Karen Inman, began demanding to see documents related to the embezzlement, Lewis branded them traitors and threw them off the national board.

LIE #6: In the question-and-answer session following the speech, Lewis pooh-poohed Sen. Charles Grassley's (R-Iowa) statement that ACORN appears to be "a shell game perpetrated by the ACORN tax-exempt entities [that] appears to be no different than that conducted by the charities involved in the Jack Abramoff scandal."

"So again, you know, without a shred of proof, no documentation," Lewis said. "We have audits. We turn in our paperwork to the proper authority. Again, Senator Grassley's report was just that -- another stretch of allegations of how to pound on ACORN and just paint a picture that, 'You must be doing that. If you're getting money, there's no way that you could keep it separately.' And it's just false."

According to ACORN lawyer Elizabeth Kingsley, Sen. Grassley's concerns are well-founded and well-documented.

Kingsley explained in her legal memo that her concerns fell into four major categories: "respect for corporate integrity, the necessary separation between different types of political work, the niceties of 501(c)(3) tax compliance and accounting for those funds, and a big-picture question about organizational capacity." She added that there are "systemic institutional concerns."

Kingsley also warned of the danger posed by the ACORN affiliates' lack of proper documentation showing that the ACORN network has been following IRS rules on nonprofit behavior. There is too much overlap between various employees representing different affiliates and confusion about who is controlling which funds and this can only lead to trouble, she argued.

The attorney warned ACORN that "merely papering the transfer of money is not sufficient." The nonprofits have to be able to show that their funds were used for appropriate purposes, she wrote.

After it was revealed two months ago that Citizens Consulting Inc. (CCI), the shadowy financial nerve center of ACORN, filed false lobbying disclosure reports with Congress, legal reform advocate and lawyer Zena Crenshaw took ACORN to task.

"They certainly should be segregating 501(c)(3) funds from their lobbying activities," said Crenshaw, a founding director and executive director of the National Judicial Conduct and Disability Law Project Inc. (NJCDLP). "I'm not sure how you can segregate them if the lobbyist is handling the money. I don't know how CCI can be both a lobbyist and a financial manager handling ACORN's 501(c)(3) funds."

"This just confirms the need for an examination of the organization's affiliates," said Crenshaw, who is also chairperson of the legal affairs committee of ACORN 8, a group of former ACORN members that is calling for a forensic audit of ACORN.

LIE #7: Following an anti-Karl Rove rant, Lewis deliberately smeared undercover sting video filmmaker James O'Keefe. O'Keefe and Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and prostitute in the videos seeking help from ACORN. ACORN workers across the nation are shown in the videos counseling the pair on how to evade taxes, make fraudulent applications for government aid, and disguise a planned brothel.

Lewis said O'Keefe told the Washington Post, "They're registering too many minorities that usually vote Democratic. Somebody's got to stop them." In fact after the newspaper ran the Sept. 18 cover story to which Lewis refers, the newspaper ran a correction because O'Keefe said no such thing.

Does anyone believe the CEO of ACORN wouldn't have known this?

LIE #8: Lewis said ACORN is suing the filmmakers and their online publisher, Andrew Breitbart, to "hold them accountable" and that it is "illegal, as Linda Tripp will tell you, to record someone in the state of Maryland without their permission."

Anyone who has studied ACORN knows the group isn't suing for accountability. It is litigating as a public relations stunt. Why ACORN decided to join a lawsuit with its two disgraced ex-employees from Baltimore is anyone's guess.

As for the illegal recording assertion, it is unlawful to record someone in the state of Maryland under a very specific set of carefully defined circumstances. I'm not aware of any serious legal thinker who believes that the wrongdoing employees in ACORN's office had an expectation or privacy or that a state wiretapping law somehow trumps the First Amendment's protection of the press freedoms exercised by the filmmakers.

LEWIS ALSO MADE several statements that may not rise to the level of a lie but are nonetheless misleading, deceptive, or paint a false picture of ACORN.

Lewis implied ACORN is part of the civil rights movement. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. ACORN is a direct descendant of both the violent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), a now-defunct Marxist entitlement group. ACORN founder Wade Rathke worked as an organizer for both SDS and NWRO.

Lewis said ACORN "began the decoupling of over a hundred corporations and organizations under my watch. We took apart that network with transparency and stability."

In fact, the ACORN network is intact. I am not aware of any evidence supporting Lewis's claim. Prove it, ACORN. Talk is cheap.

Lewis pointed to ACORN's supposed successes in making banks change the way they do business. She said ACORN convinced banks to accept unorthodox "susu" savings pools used by West Indian immigrants as proof of income in the loan underwriting process. "We got them to understand that this was legitimate and that you couldn't cast aspersions on people simply because they were from the Caribbean and they had a cultural tradition that was different from what the banks knew," she said.

Lewis left out the fact that ACORN also strong-armed banks into counting welfare benefits as income in the mortgage underwriting process, a move that enabled people who would be better off staying renters to buy homes. One ACORN Housing Corp. document called the American Dream a sham and bragged about undermining banks' underwriting standards. The pamphlet bragged that ACORN has forced some banks serving inner cities to accept "less traditional income sources such as food stamps."

One reporter told me the day of the Press Club speech that he tried but failed to interview Lewis after the speech. "She ran away after the event like a bat out of hell," he said.

Milbank explained why:

Lewis, in playing the victim, is her own worst enemy. Forget the film of the pimp and prostitute: Watching a film of Lewis's performance yesterday would probably be enough to cause lawmakers to cut off ACORN's federal funding.

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About the Author

Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist at a conservative watchdog group in Washington, D.C. Vadum is also author of Subversion Inc: How Obama's ACORN Red Shirts are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers.