Political Hay

ACORN’S Useful Idiots

Some defenders of ACORN are blind. Some like Joe Conason are something else again.

By 9.21.09

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Some defenders of ACORN are blind. Some are useful idiots.

They say ACORN means well despite the ongoing scandal related to an undercover video sting operation. In it, now-fired ACORN employees across America advised two young people pretending to be a pimp and a prostitute on how to set up an underage illegal alien sex slave ring.

ACORN backers say -- as they have always without fail said whenever ACORN faces an employee-related scandal -- that the workers were just a few bad apples and that ACORN is focused, as Democratic strategist Paul Begala says, on improving "the real lives of real people."

There are useful idiots and then there's Joe Conason who ought to know better. He's just whining now because the right has finally learned the power of political theater.

Even as evidence mounts that ACORN is a criminal organization, the longtime Bill Clinton apologist brushes aside legitimate concerns about the group in a column on Salon.com.

Trekking into new frontiers of denial and dishonesty, Conason blames ACORN's recent troubles on the political right: "Like so many conservative attacks, the crusade against ACORN has been highly exaggerated and even falsified to create a demonic image that bears little resemblance to the real organization."

As the first in a series of videos emerged, Conason appeared on CNN reflexively dismissing them, questioning the propriety of such undercover journalism, and calling the videos "propaganda."

In his Salon column, Conason continues digging a hole for himself, arguing that "ACORN's troubles should be considered in the context of a history of honorable service to the dispossessed and impoverished." Although the undercover operatives may have had fun duping "a few morons into providing tax advice to a 'pimp and ho,'" what ACORN actually does is help poor families file for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and fight foreclosure so they can stay in their homes, he writes.

In fact, ACORN does not have "a history of honorable service to the dispossessed and impoverished."

This is a common misconception on the left where the group is viewed as having roughly the same moral rectitude as the late Mother Teresa. It is thought of as unassailable because it is believed to be doing good. The fact that it is so regularly attacked by conservatives and Republicans causes the left to cheer even louder for ACORN.

But the evidence shows that ACORN does not mean well, and that any good the group may happen to do for people is purely incidental.

ACORN grew out of the tumultuous 1960s. Founder Wade Rathke, who was charged with inciting violence in 1970 after a welfare rally he organized turned into a riot, had worked as a draft resistance organizer for the radical group Students for a Democratic Society. SDS splintered over tactics and one faction, the Weather Underground, was led by President Obama's friend Bill Ayers.

Rathke was also an organizer for the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO), a group whose members physically occupied welfare offices, intimidating social workers and insisting that they be given every government welfare dollar that the law "entitled" them to. That group followed what has since been called the Cloward-Piven Strategy after sociologists Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward.

They defined a model of political and economic subversion that called upon activists to pack the welfare rolls to spread dependency, bankrupt the government, and cause uprisings against the capitalist system. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani blames the Cloward-Piven Strategy for pushing his city close to bankruptcy in 1975.

The same year as his arrest, Rathke founded ACORN to carry out the strategy of upheaval and the agenda of welfare entitlement. That agenda manifests itself today in

the ACORN Tax & Benefit Access Center and the ACORN Financial Justice Center.

In other words, ACORN was created not to help people, but to get people on welfare in order to bring change to society.

ACORN created a new kind of tax preparation service based on the assumption that Americans have a "right" to welfare. Think of it as H&R Block for subversives. ACORN helps people claim the EITC, a make-believe tax credit that functions more as a welfare benefit. The goal is not primarily to help Americans in need but to pack the welfare rolls in order to expand the size and scope of government. It even strong-armed banks into counting food stamps as income on mortgage applications.

The Cloward-Piven Strategy remains relevant today especially because -- in a move that just about nobody noticed -- the spectacularly successful Clinton era welfare reforms were erased in language buried deep within the February stimulus package signed into law by President Obama. As Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has documented, federal law has been changed to offer new financial incentives to states to increase their welfare caseloads.

ACORN, with its hundreds of tax-exempt nonprofit affiliates, has always operated on the fringes of the law. It contributed in its own way to the subprime mortgage crisis. Its history of lawbreaking, including poor treatment of its own workers and criminal trespass and squatting aimed at forcibly preventing lawful foreclosures, has been extensively documented.

The undercover videos by James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles merely showed Americans what ACORN really is: a crime syndicate.

Meanwhile, Conason presses on, defending a criminal group that has long been essential to Democratic Party electoral victories.

He tries to "dispel some of the wild mythology promoted by right-wing media outlets," including tales of election fraud and corruption, but he selectively cites only evidence that furthers his deceptive argument.

One of "the most popular canards on the right, repeated constantly by conservative pundits and politicians, is that ACORN has been found guilty of engaging in deliberate voter fraud, using federal funds," Conason writes. "In reality, ACORN has registered close to 2 million low-income citizens across the country over the past five years -- a laudable record with a very low incidence of fraud of any kind."

In fact, last year more than 400,000 of the 1.3 million voter registrations the group claimed to have collected were thrown out as invalid. ACORN is under indictment in Nevada for conspiracy to commit election fraud and under investigation in Cleveland, Ohio. In Ohio, a person named Darnell Nash was indicted by a grand jury for casting a fraudulent ballot. Nash was registered multiple times by ACORN. ACORN remains under investigation in Cleveland by the local prosecutor, a Democrat.

That's one heck of a canard.

It is unclear if federal funds were involved in ACORN's electoral crime spree because ACORN's finances are so incredibly convoluted. ACORN's affiliates routinely write each other huge checks, moving money around like a South American drug lord.

In Conason's view, ACORN is such a wonderful, honest, organization that when its officials discovered cases of voter registration fraud, "they informed the state authorities and turned in the miscreants." He left out the fact that ACORN officials routinely encourage and turn a blind eye to such fraud and throw their own workers under the bus whenever there's trouble.

And then there's the nearly $1 million embezzlement of ACORN funds by Dale Rathke, the founder Wade Rathke's brother. ACORN never called the police.

The Rathkes and ACORN management covered up the circa 2000 swindle for eight years. It was only revealed by whistleblowers and the news media. Rathke friend Drummond Pike of the Tides Foundation rushed in to pay the remaining debt that had not yet been repaid by the Rathke family. It appears Pike, who is treasurer of George Soros's Democracy Alliance funders' group, did so out of his own pocket, in order to keep the identity of donors secret.

The bad publicity generated by the embezzlement scandal forced the far-left Catholic Campaign for Human Development to stop funding ACORN altogether.

The ACORN network also owes millions of dollars in back taxes to all levels of government. ACORN sold out its own constituents for an emergency grant and loan from a big real estate developer.

Expect Conason's free form spin-doctoring to continue because ACORN is extremely valuable to the left. The Wall Street Journal's John Fund correctly calls ACORN the "shock troops" of the Democratic Party.

Others on the left are rushing to ACORN's defense and the more prominent defenders are just lip synching Conason's lyrics.

The most famous member of the useful idiot brigade is actress Whoopi Goldberg. She said on "The View":

Everything, I mean, you know, there are boneheads in all organizations. We've worked for them. We know that they're there. But do you kill the whole thing? And I don't think so. A lot of people think that you should kill it. But you can't answer, you can't tell me where those people who become even more disenfranchised go.

Ezra Klein of the Washington Post concurs and links to Michael Tomasky, who in turn follows Conason's talking points. Tomasky is editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas. George Soros's Open Society Institute funds it.

The American Prospect's Adam Serwer taps into his inner useful idiot once again, arguing that the right takes "the ACORN scandal as a kind of vindication of all their paranoid fantasies of what ACORN was responsible for." Would that it were true.

Fellow Salonista Glenn Greenwald joined the chorus too, while Amanda Terkel of Think Progress preferred deliciously naughty misdirection as she harped on Republicans' own hooker hypocrisy.

The consistently execrable David Neiwert of the appropriately named Crooks and Liars blog was particularly creative in coming up with the argument that Fox News was "punk'd" by O'Keefe and Giles. Neiwert wrote a book called The Eliminationists in which he argued that within every conservative there is a Nazi waiting to break out and murder leftists.

ACORN will not go away quietly. It's too big and too powerful. Power never concedes anything without a fight, so it's not at all surprising that the group is already trying to whitewash its deep-seated, systemic problems.

The independent audit announced by ACORN last week is a fairy tale.

It is packed with left-wing political hacks including Clinton White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and SEIU President Andy Stern. Both men have the ear of President Obama and Podesta even helped organize the Bush-to-Obama transition. Of course, SEIU Local 100 and 880 are part of the ACORN network, a fact that ACORN tried to cover up earlier this year by scrubbing references to the locals on its "affiliated organizations" page.

Longtime ACORN ally Jerrold Nadler, who was endorsed by ACORN's political party in New York state, the Working Families Party, came up with a truly original defense of ACORN. The legislation to cut off funds for ACORN is a constitutionally proscribed bill of attainder, he says.

Maybe the congressman's right. We should heed his advice and just skip the constitutional concerns altogether and head straight to a criminal prosecution under federal racketeering laws and deal with these people the way we do with other gangsters.

Appointing a special prosecutor might be a good start. 

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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.