NEW YORK - The head of activist group ACORN came to a federal court Tuesday to observe a legal fight over its funding and said the group was on "life support" after waves of bad publicity and an attempt by Congress to cut off its money.
Bertha Lewis, the chief executive officer for the group, said ACORN was getting by on about $4 million annually rather than its one-time $25 million budget and had reduced its staff to four, down from between 350 and 600 employees.
"We're still alive. We're limping along. We're on life support," Lewis said in an interview just after a government lawyer asked a federal appeals court to temporarily block a judge's ruling that it was unconstitutional for Congress to cut funding to ACORN.
A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan did not immediately rule on the request after hearing arguments. If granted, a stay of the lower-court order would remain in place until full arguments on the issue can be heard during the summer.
Attorney Mark Stern argued for the Justice Department that Congress did nothing wrong when it took action last year against ACORN after it identified "widespread mismanagement."
Attorney Jules Lobel of the Center for Constitutional Rights said that funding for economically distressed people who receive government subsidies for homes was being blocked and that the money needed to be freed or some people would be homeless.
U.S. District Judge Nina Gershon has ruled twice in the past six months that the funding cutoff was unconstitutional.
The Brooklyn judge said ACORN was punished by Congress without having gone through processes to decide whether money had been handled inappropriately.
ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, describes itself as an advocate for low-income and minority home buyers and residents.
Critics of the group say it has engaged in voter registration fraud and embezzlement and has violated the tax-exempt status of some of its affiliates by engaging in partisan political activities.
A series of secretly taped videos filmed at ACORN offices around the country caught employees giving bad advice, sparking a national scandal and helping drive the organization to near ruin.
Lewis said the controversies had left a stain on the group, "sort of like a scarlet letter," forcing ACORN to spend money defending itself against "one investigation after another."
She said money from large foundations and private individuals had largely dried up in the wake of the controversy.
"That was the point: to demonize the ACORN name and break the organization," she said.
She said many of the local chapters of ACORN had broken from the national organization and formed their own support networks and fundraising mechanisms, shedding the name as well.
Lewis said the legal fight was critical to ACORN's recovery.
"If we can survive this, inch by inch, little by little, this organization can build itself back up," she said. "We're going to fight like hell to stay alive."