Published October 26, 2011
The former New York office for ACORN, the disbanded community activist group, is playing a key role in the self-proclaimed “leaderless” Occupy Wall Street movement, organizing “guerrilla” protest events and hiring door-to-door canvassers to collect money under the banner of various causes while spending it on protest-related activities, sources tell FoxNews.com.
The former director of New York ACORN, Jon Kest, and his top aides are now busy working at protest events for New York Communities for Change (NYCC). That organization was created in late 2009 when some ACORN offices disbanded and reorganized under new names after undercover video exposes prompted Congress to cut off federal funds.
NYCC’s connection to ACORN isn’t a tenuous one: It works from the former ACORN offices in Brooklyn, uses old ACORN office stationery, employs much of the old ACORN staff and, according to several sources, engages in some of the old organization’s controversial techniques to raise money, interest and awareness for the protests.
Sources said NYCC has hired about 100 former ACORN-affiliated staff members from other cities – paying some of them $100 a day - to attend and support Occupy Wall Street. Dozens of New York homeless people recruited from shelters are also being paid to support the protests, at the rate of $10 an hour, the sources said.
At least some of those hired are being used as door-to-door canvassers to collect money that’s used to support the protests.
Sources said cash donations collected by NYCC on behalf of some unions and various causes are being pooled and spent on Occupy Wall Street. The money is used to buy supplies, pay staff and cover travel expenses for the ex-ACORN members brought to New York for the protests.
In one such case, sources said, NYCC staff members collected cash donations for what they were told was a United Federation of Teachers fundraising drive, but the money was diverted to the protests.
Sources who participated in the teachers union campaign said NYCC supervisors gave them the addresses of union members and told them to go knock on their doors and ask for contributions—and did not mention that the money would go toward Occupy Wall Street expenses. One source said the campaign raked in about $5,000.
Current staff members at NYCC told FoxNews.com the union fundraising drive was called off abruptly last week, and they were told NYCC should not have been raising money for the union at all.
Sources said staff members also collected door-to-door for NYCC’s PCB campaign — which aims to test schools for deadly toxins —but then pooled that money together with cash raised for the teachers union and other campaigns to fund Occupy Wall Street.
“We go to Freeport, Central Islip, Park Slope, everywhere, and we say we’re collecting money for PCBs testing in schools. But the money isn’t going to the campaign," one source said.
"It’s going to Occupy Wall Street, and we’re not using that money to get schools tested for deadly chemicals or to make their kids safer. It’s just going to the protests, and that’s just so terrible.”
A spokesman for the United Federation of Teachers told FoxNews.com, "The UFT is not involved in any NYCC fundraising on the PCB issue.”
Multiple sources said NYCC is also using cash donations through canvassing efforts in New York’s Harlem and Washington Heights neighborhoods for union-backed campaigns to fund the Wall Street protests.
“All the money collected from canvasses is pooled together back at the office, and everything we’ve been working on for the last year is going to the protests, against big banks and to pay people’s salaries—and those people on salary are, of course, being paid to go to the protests every day,” one NYCC staff member told FoxNews.com.
Those who contribute don't know the money is going to fund the protests, the source said.
“They give contributions because we say if they do we can fix things - whatever specific problem they’re having in their area, housing, schools, whatever ... then we spend the contributions paying staff to be at the protests all day, every day. That’s where these contributions - the community’s money – is going,” the source said.
“They’re doing the same stuff now that got ACORN in trouble to begin with. And yes, we’re still ACORN, there is a still a national ACORN.”
Another source, who said she was hired from a homeless shelter, said she was first sent to the protests before being deployed to Central Islip, Long Island, to canvass for a campaign against home foreclosures.
“I went to the protests every day for two weeks and made $10 an hour. They made me carry NYCC signs and big orange banners that say NYCC in white letters. About 50 others were hired around my time to go to the protests. We went to protests in and around Zuccotti Park, then to the big Times Square protest,” she said.
“But now they have me canvassing on Long Island for money, so I get the money and then the money is being used for Occupy Wall Street—to pay for all of it, for supplies, food, transportation, salaries, for everything ... all that money is going to pay for the protests downtown and that’s just messed up. It’s just wrong.”
Neither Kest, NYCC executive director, nor his communications director returned repeated email and telephone requests for comment, nor did his communications director. A Fox News producer who visited the Brooklyn office on Tuesday was told, "The best people to speak to who are involved with Occupy Wall Street aren't available."
But the organization responded to this story late Wednesday, alerting a FoxNews.com reporter by Twitter message to a statement posted on its website that called the story a "smear campaign."
"Fox News is trying to discredit Occupy Wall Street. New York Communities for Change is a new organization that fights for low- and moderate-income families," the agency said in the online statement, credited to board member Linnette Ebanks. "We don't pay protesters and any monies raised by NYCC's canvass are used in support of our ongoing issue campaigns. Period."
The statement also argued that Occupy Wall Street is "an organic movement" that has the support of most Americans.
NYCC Deputy Director Greg Basta subsequently declined an invitation for an on-the-record interview with Kest to discuss FoxNews.com's reporting of the story.
In a phone interview on Tuesday, Harrison Schultz, an Occupy Wall Street spokesman, said he knew nothing about NYCC’s involvement in the Occupy movement.
“Haven’t seen them, couldn’t tell you,” he said.
He said he couldn’t comment on the Occupy the Boardroom website’s relationship to the movement and to NYCC.
“It’s a horizontal organization, a leaderless organization, it’s difficult to explain it,” Schultz said, “difficult to explain it to people who haven’t worked in this, who haven’t been part of it.”
Kest publicly threw his organization’s support behind the movement in a Sept. 30 opinion piece on HuffingtonPost.com. But top ex-ACORN staff members and current NYCC officials have been planning events like the Occupy Wall Street protests since February, a source within the group told FoxNews.com.
That’s when planning began for May 12 protests against Chase bank foreclosures, which were followed by the formation of the Beyond May 12 campaign, targeting Wall Street and big banks. That campaign was rolled out by a coalition of community groups and unions and led by the revamped former ACORN group.
“What people don’t understand is that ACORN is behind this — and that this, what’s happening now, is all part of the May 12 and Beyond May 12 plans to go after the banks, Chase in particular,” a source said.
Sources said NYCC was a key player behind a series of recent Occupy Wall Street events, including the Oct. 11 Millionaires March, which brought protests and union and community groups on walking tours of Upper East Side homes of wealthy New Yorkers; and the launch of the “Occupy the Boardroom” website, registered to Kest, which encouraged protesters to contact high-profile bankers, among others.
Fox News' Shira Bush contributed to this report.