WASHINGTON -- Conservative Republicans are capitalizing on the troubles of community activist group ACORN -- ranging from charges of voter registration fraud to embarrassing videos of its employees -- to revive their long-standing fight against a federal law that grades banks on their investments in poor and minority neighborhoods.
The 1977 Community Reinvestment Act was intended to end redlining, a practice in which banks in effect walled off many inner-city neighborhoods from mortgage loans. But some GOP lawmakers say it has outlived its purpose and is being used inappropriately by ACORN to shake down banks for money. They want to repeal the law, scale it back or at least block a Democratic proposal to expand it.
Critics of the law are linking it to ACORN -- a subject many Democrats wish would go away -- at every opportunity.
"Should we repeal CRA? Absolutely," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, a member of the House Financial Services Committee. "Do we have the votes for it today? I seriously doubt that."
Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., also on the committee, has described ACORN's actions under the law as "legalized extortion," contending that the law gave ACORN the power to stall or prevent bank mergers or expansions by filing CRA complaints with regulators.
"In order to avoid these filings, financial institutions would either lower their lending requirements to meet the needs of ACORN associates or they would simply pay out funds to one of the many ACORN-affiliated organizations," Royce wrote in an article posted on his House Web site.
ACORN said that nearly all the money it receives from banks is used to provide advice to first-time home buyers or homeowners who are at risk of losing their homes to foreclosures, and that the money isn't used for political advocacy.
"The Republicans are attempting to intimidate banks to halt monies that are used to help working families become home buyers or save their homes from foreclosure," spokesman Brain Kettenring said.
Archived ACORN testimony on the Federal Reserve Board Web site shows ACORN has spoken against bank mergers, contending that banks weren't living up to the CRA. In at least one case, however, ACORN supported a merger. The group acknowledged in the 1998 testimony that it was unusual for it do so, but said one of the banks involved, NationsBank, was a leader in community reinvestment, and that its partnership with ACORN Housing Corp. had produced at least $236 million in mortgages.
A decade ago, then-Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas unsuccessfully tried to gut the law, describing nonprofits that use the law as "protection rackets."
Recent troubles at ACORN are giving Republicans ammunition in their renewed campaign against the law. Some employees are accused of voter registration fraud. Its founder was forced out last year amid revelations that he had tried to keep quiet his brother's embezzlement of nearly $1 million. Two conservative filmmakers disguised as a prostitute and a pimp caught ACORN employees on camera giving them tax and immigration advice and advising them to disguise the source of their income to get housing aid.
Three Republican congressmen have asked 14 banks to provide details on their dealings with ACORN. One of them, Bank of America, said it wouldn't engage further with ACORN Housing Corp. until ACORN's issues are resolved.
ACORN, short for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, portrays itself as a successful advocate for tens of thousands of low-income and minority homebuyers. It appointed a former state attorney general to investigate the video scandal.
Republicans describe it as a pro-Democratic group that among other things, is violating the tax-exempt status of some of its affiliates by engaging in partisan political activities.
ACORN Housing Corp. and other ACORN affiliates help people land mortgages and fight predatory lending. They also build and renovate low-income housing around the country. The developments include the ACORN Beverly and Desert Rose subdivisions in Phoenix, the ACORN Glenn subdivision in Houston and apartments in Paterson, N.J. ACORN affiliates rehabilitate housing in New York and elsewhere.
ACORN Housing Corp. and related entities have long done business with major banks. How much, how the money was spent and which ACORN organizations and personnel were involved are difficult to piece together. ACORN does not file a publicly available report describing all its various entities, their financing, their spending or the various roles of its executives.
ACORN's public announcements and a patchwork of documents filed at the federal, state and local levels provide at least a glimpse of the range of its housing activities and relationships with banks.
Just last year, ACORN Housing Corp. announced it was starting a nonprofit brokerage with CitiMortgage, Bank of America and others to help low-income families get mortgages in Florida.
JPMorgan Chase & Co. gave ACORN a five-year, $5 million grant in 2003 for foreclosure prevention and low-income housing initiatives. The company said it hasn't made any donations since last year and won't consider any.
A JPMorgan Chase mortgage officer, Guilermo Loaiza, until recently was on the board at ACORN Housing Corp. He also served as presidents of Arizona ACORN Housing Corp. and ACORN Beverly, a limited liability corporation through which ACORN developed a Phoenix subdivision with help from $4.8 million in credit from JPMorgan Chase.
ACORN Housing Corp. spokeswoman Alyson Chadwick said Loaiza's term on the ACORN Housing board was due to end this month and he decided not to remain for personal reasons. He no longer heads Arizona ACORN Housing or ACORN Beverly, she said.
ACORN Beverly used about $2.5 million of the JPMorgan Chase credit line to build 25 homes and has repaid most of it, Chadwick said. JPMorgan Chase hasn't financed any other loans with Arizona ACORN Housing or ACORN Beverly but has funded other ACORN Housing projects, Chadwick said.
Loaiza didn't act as a loan officer for any Beverly homebuyers, nor did he have anything to do on JPMorgan's end with the project's multimillion-dollar credit line, Chadwick said.
"Bottom line -- no fees to Guilermo," she said. "He always stayed away to avoid any potential for conflict of interest." ACORN Housing has a conflict-of-interest policy and it was in effect at the time of the Arizona project, she added.
An ACORN consultant in the summer of 2008 identified multiple roles played by many officials at ACORN affiliates and the need for a strong conflict-of-interest policy as problems for the group.
"Too many people are wearing too many hats, or perhaps the wrong hat entirely," the consultant wrote in an internal report obtained by The Associated Press.
The report recommended a number of good governance reforms including an anti-conflict-of-interest policy. Those reforms were adopted at the October 2008 board meeting of ACORN.
The history of the relationships between banks and groups like ACORN goes back to President Jimmy Carter's signing of the CRA in 1977.
The neighborhoods targeted for help by the law were typically in areas where groups like ACORN already were working. Banks initially resisted the overtures, but over time saw a viable market for lending in minority communities, with community organizers in a supporting role counseling potential borrowers.
"The relationships between banks and groups like ACORN weren't necessarily marriages made in heaven, but they've consistently worked well," said Gregory Squires, a George Washington University professor who has written about ACORN.