The Service Employees International Union's Anna Burger shocked political observers last week when she told a congressional hearing that her union "cut all ties to ACORN."
Burger's statement came days before Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell announced yesterday that former ACORN official Dale Rathke allegedly stole $5 million from ACORN, as opposed to the originally reported sum of close to $1 million. Current ACORN chief organizer Bertha Lewis denies the $5 million figure is correct, and other ACORN inside sources I trust also deny the figure is correct, but more on the embezzlement saga in a moment.
Surely the SEIU's claimed break from ACORN is the kind of earth-shattering news that a powerful, high-profile labor union like SEIU would want to get out there as ACORN becomes increasingly associated in the public mind with corruption and criminality.
Alas, it only came up when Burger, who is SEIU's international secretary-treasurer, was asked about ACORN by Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.) during a Sept. 30 hearing conducted by the House Financial Services Committee, as reported by BigGovernment.com.
The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, along with Time, Newsweek, the Nation, Mother Jones, and American Prospect were immediately all over the story -- oh wait, no they weren't. I guess I must have dozed there and started dreaming. Sorry about that, dear reader. I must be under-caffeinated.
At press time yesterday, a Nexis search for the keywords "ACORN SEIU Anna Burger" yielded exactly zip, except for an official transcript of the congressional testimony.
Moving along, at the hearing last week, McHenry said, "As of today the U.S. Census Bureau, the IRS, and even Bank of America have severed ties with ACORN and according to yesterday's, actually the day before yesterday's report from the Chicago Sun-Times the SEIU has given ACORN $4 million. Could you clarify to me the extent of your financial and programmatic ties to ACORN."
In reply, Burger said, "SEIU has also cut all ties to ACORN."
McHenry interrupted. "They have?"
Burger gave a rambling reply: "We have. In Illinois, I believe that I'm correct, that the ACORN institution, the consumer protection, the community organization in Illinois cut its ties to ACORN two years ago and so in Illinois there was [sic] no ties in the last two years between any SEIU work and ACORN."
"What was the extent of your financial ties with ACORN?" the congressman asked.
"I will get that information for you for the record," she said. Called the "queen of labor" by some, Burger is an officer of George Soros's Democracy Alliance, a left-wing billionaire donors' collaborative that has steered funds to ACORN. She also chairs the powerful labor federation known as Change to Win.
Yesterday, Burger did supply the requested information to McHenry. Her letter (available here) states that in 2008 SEIU paid $190,000 to ACORN for "Contributions (including General Support and ACORN Projects like Voter Registration)." The figure for 2009 was $25,000.
The letter states that SEIU paid ACORN $1.4 million in 2008 for "Contracted Services (including services such as the Organizing Apprenticeship Program and Childcare Worker Organizing Campaigns)." The figure for 2009 was $220,000.
I asked SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette in an interview what Burger meant when she said SEIU had cut all ties with ACORN.
Ringuette replied, "We have suspended all contracts and active work with ACORN," pending the results of a panel of inquiry looking into ACORN. SEIU boss Andy Stern sits on that supposedly independent panel.
I'm skeptical of Ringuette's statement but it may turn out to be accurate. Of course, SEIU could still be providing help to ACORN behind the scenes even if it publicly distances itself from the embattled activist group.
Also bear in mind that ACORN was set up to have a deliberately confusing structure. It seems decentralized but that's an illusion. In fact, the ACORN network of affiliates is tightly controlled from the top through interlocking directorates and regular intra-network financial transfers.
When affiliates get into trouble, ACORN can always try the plausible deniability defense. It's always a rogue employee or a subsidiary acting without permission from the top, ACORN claims. Trying to get the goods on ACORN and affiliates turns into a game of political whack-a-mole. Titles change, people move around, money is transferred, and outsiders often give up investigating ACORN out of sheer frustration.
That said, although ACORN has long been affiliated with SEIU, I caught ACORN -- not SEIU -- red-handed in April trying to flush its SEIU ties down an Orwellian memory hole.
It scrubbed its website of references to two of its key affiliates, SEIU Locals 100 and 880, an event reported by Kevin Mooney of the Washington Examiner. Fortunately, I made a snapshot of the web page a year ago.
Why would the radical left-wing ACORN do that? At the time observers speculated that organized labor didn't want to be associated with ACORN as its reputation continued to sink in the quicksand. The observers may have been right.
Ringuette said both locals continue to exist as labor unions but are no longer affiliated with SEIU. Local 100 "simply couldn't meet requirements to be a stand alone union" because it was "not financially viable," she said.
SEIU's international executive board moved last month to revoke Local 100's charter, she said. The local had until Sept. 30 to appeal the disaffiliation decision but didn't do so to the best of her knowledge, Ringuette said.
Ringuette said that Local 880 was created in Chicago in the late 1970s and affiliated with SEIU in the mid-1980s. Local 100 was founded in New Orleans around the same time and also affiliated with SEIU in the mid-1980s, she said.
ACORN insider Keith Kelleher heads 880 and ACORN founder Wade Rathke heads 100. SEIU dwarfs ACORN. The union claims to have 2.1 million members compared to ACORN's 400,000 "member families."
MEANWHILE, IN OTHER ACORN news, Louisiana Attorney General Buddy Caldwell, a Democrat, said yesterday that the embezzlement at ACORN perpetrated around the year 2000 by then-ACORN official Dale Rathke involved $5 million, not the originally reported figure of close to $1 million.
Citing a report from the New Orleans Times-Picayune, BigGovernment.com reported that the $5 million figure is mentioned in a subpoena.
The subpoena states:
Current high ranking members of ACORN have publicly acknowledged that embezzlement did in fact occur, but the exact amount of the embezzlement was unknown until it was recently acknowledged in a board of directors meeting on October 17, 2008 by Bertha Lewis and Liz Wolf that an internal review had determined that the amount embezzled was $5,000,000.00 (FIVE MILLION), and it is still unclear if some of the monies embezzled are from state, federal or private funds.
Current ACORN chief organizer Bertha Lewis yesterday denied the figure was $5 million. Lewis is scheduled to speak at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., this morning. Sources within ACORN I trust also say the $5 million figure is wildly inaccurate.
Liz Wolf, also referred to in the subpoena, works for Citizens Consulting Inc. (CCI), the shadowy financial nerve center of the ACORN network. Wolf has been negotiating with tax collectors on behalf of ACORN to have interest on its tax debts waived and to have some of the debts partially forgiven.
SEIU spokeswoman Ringuette said rumors about the ACORN embezzler Dale Rathke, who is the brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke, working for SEIU are untrue. "Dale Rathke does not work for SEIU or any of its affiliates," she said.
Dale blew much of the money he stole on luxury items, the New York Post has reported. Wade Rathke, Lewis, and other senior ACORN officials are said to have covered up the embezzlement for years. The Rathke family repaid about one-quarter of the stolen money and Drummond Pike, founder of the left-wing Tides Foundation, covered the rest out of his own pocket when the embezzlement came to light last year. Like SEIU's Burger, Pike is an officer of the Democracy Alliance.
ACORN national board members Marcel Reid, Karen Inman, and others were expelled from ACORN by Lewis for asking too many questions about the embezzlement after the board appointed them to a special investigative committee that was supposed to get answers about the incident. After leaving, Reid and Inman co-founded the reform group 'ACORN 8.'
In the annals of the ACORN scandal, it must feel like a good day when a key former ally can distance itself from ACORN and at the same time claim it never had any ties with one of its more notorious players.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring? It's clear that a serious public inquiry into the ACORN network is only just beginning.