Officials with the revamped ACORN office in New York -- operating as New York Communities for Change -- have fired staff, shredded reams of documents and told workers to blame disgruntled ex-employees for leaking information in an effort to explain away a FoxNews.com report last week on the group’s involvement in Occupy Wall Street protests, according to sources.
NYCC also is installing surveillance cameras and recording devices at its Brooklyn offices, removing or packing away supplies bearing the name ACORN and handing out photos of Fox News staff with a stern warning not to talk to the media, the sources said.
“They’re doing serious damage control right now,” said an NYCC source.
NYCC Executive Director Jon Kest has been calling a series of emergency meetings to discuss last week’s report—and taking extreme measures to identify the sources in their office and to prevent further damage, a source within NYCC told FoxNews.com.
Two staffers were fired after NYCC officials suspected them as the source of the leaks, a source told FoxNews.com. “One was fired the day the story came out, the other was fired on Friday. (NYCC senior staff) told everyone that they were fired because they talked to you,” a source said.
NYCC spokesman Scott Levenson denied that anyone was fired for talking to the press.
FoxNews.com’s report identified NYCC as a key organizing force behind the Occupy Wall Street protests. Sources within the group also told FoxNews.com NYCC was hiring people to carry signs and join the protests. NYCC -- a nonprofit organization run almost entirely by former ACORN officials and employees --did not reply for comment prior to the publication of the initial article, but later posted a statement on its website dismissing the article and denying that it pays protesters.
A source said that immediately following publication of the FoxNews.com report staff were called into the Brooklyn office for meetings headed by NYCC’s organizing director, Jonathan Westin. Westin handed out copies of the article and went through it line-by-line, the source said.
Staffers were also given copies of photos of Senior Fox News Correspondent Eric Shawn and three other Fox News staff members, including this reporter.
“They reminded us that we can get fired, sued, arrested for talking to the press,” the source said. “Then they went through the article point-by-point and said that the allegation that we pay people to protest isn’t true.”
“‘That’s the story that we’re sticking to,’” Westin said, according to the source.
The source said staffers at the meeting contested Westin’s denial:
“It was pretty funny. Jonathan told staff they don’t pay for protesters, but the people in the meeting who work there objected and said, ‘Wait, you pay us to go to the protests every day?’ Then Jonathan said ‘No, but that’s your job,’ and staffers were like, ‘Yeah, our job is to protest,’ and Westin said, ‘No your job is to fight for economic and social justice. We just send you to protest.’
“Staff said, ‘Yes, you pay us to carry signs.’ Then Jonathan says, ‘That’s your job.’ It went on like that back and forth for a while.”
During the meetings, NYCC Deputy Director Greg Basta provided Westin with the copied photos of Fox News reporters to hand out to staff members, the source said. Basta told staffers they might be asked about the article when out in communities working on campaigns or when calling people by phone, the source said.
“They told us if people bring up the article, we’re supposed to say the source and all the stuff in there came from a disgruntled ex-employee who’s not working with us anymore.”
NYCC is also monitoring its staff’s behavior, cracking down on phone use and socialization. Officials have ordered all papers -- even scraps -- to be shredded every night, the source said.
“And all the supplies—everything around the office that said ‘ACORN’ -- is now all in storage until this blows over,” the source said. “People literally have to cover up the cameras on the back of their cellphones in the office.”
“Now there’s no texting in the office, no phone calls in the office. They tell us to take our phone calls out into the waiting room where there’s an intercom, and then they turn on the intercom to hear our conversations. They’re installing new cameras and speakers around the building so they can hear everything.
“It’s almost like working at Fort Knox.”
NYCC officials declined repeated requests to respond to specific questions about the organization’s response to last week’s story. The group on Wednesday instead sent this statement, attributed to NYCC board member Jean Sassine:
"New York Communities for Change participates in protests, direct action, social activism and campaigns that promote social and economic justice. We see FOX as the enemy to those efforts. For the record, this is consistent with Fox attacks on Van Jones, Shirley Sherrod, George Soros, Citizen Action, Planned Parenthood and all those who stand for social justice. Once again, FOX entertainment poses as FOX News. Once again, FOX makes a series of false, unsubstantiated claims and accusations which have no basis in fact. Once again, through a series of sources FOX structures a story which is nothing but a series of lies."
Westin did respond to some questions a day earlier, when approached by FoxNews.com at an NYCC event in Manhattan.
When asked if a staff member was fired because people thought he’d talked to the press, Westin said, “I have no idea.” When asked about handing out photos of Fox News employees, he said, “I have been? No, I don’t think I have been. That wasn’t me.”
Westin did acknowledge NYCC staff have met to discuss last week’s report. “People talked about it,” he said. “People are interested.”
He also deflected a question about the allegation that staffers were being told to blame the report on disgruntled staffers, telling this reporter to contact him later via email.
Responding to reports of pushback from staffers who said they were being paid to go to the protests, and reports NYCC had recently hired people as canvassers or organizers and then sent them to the protests, Westin replied repeatedly “We don’t pay people to protest.”
Westin later did not reply to two emails asking for follow-up.