ACORN — the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — bills itself as the nation's largest grassroots community organization of low- and moderate-income people, with more than 400,000 member families organized within 1,200 neighborhood chapters in 110 cities across the U.S.
Among other priorities, the organization strives for improved housing and wages for the poor, increased community development investment from institutions and banks, increased voter registration and affordable health care.
Originally named the Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN was founded as a nonprofit, nonpartisan entity in 1970 by Wade Rathke, a follower of George Wiley, founder of the National Welfare Rights Organization. Rathke stepped down from his post as chief organizer in 2008 after it was revealed that his brother Dale had embezzled nearly $1 million of ACORN funds eight years earlier.
In 1972, ACORN made it first foray into electoral politics when it held a "Save the City Rally" in Little Rock, Ark., and subsequently backed two candidates for the Little Rock School Board through its Political Action Committee. National conventions and actions during the following years led to an entry into national politics during the presidential campaign of 1980, when ACORN applied pressure to candidates during the nomination process when those candidates were in most need of grassroots support, a "specialty" of the group, according to its Web site.
Six years later, in 1986, the organization created the ACORN Housing Corporation to "build and preserve housing assets." Since its inception, according to its Web site, the corporation has assisted more than 45,000 families to become first-time homeowners and has rehabbed more than 850 vacant or abandoned housing units.
ACORN's self-described "allied organizations" include a quarterly magazine called Social Policy, which covers community and labor organizing, two radio stations, its housing wing and a law office. It also maintains a political action committee and relationships with a plethora of trade-union officials.
Despite ACORN's successes in a wide array of areas — including the targeting of predatory lending practices, advocacy that led to local living wage laws in 15 major U.S. cities and fundraising drives for victims of Hurricane Katrina and many others — the organization has been marred by controversies including the embezzlement case against Dale Rathke, voter registration fraud by some of its workers and, most recently, hidden-camera operations that depicted employee misconduct in several cities, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore and New York.
Those undercover operations by an independent filmmaker purporting to be a pimp led to swift criticism at the organization, including the firing of at least four employees, the severing of its ties to the U.S. Census Bureau for work related to the 2010 count and an 83-7 Senate vote to cut off the group from Housing and Urban Development grants. Law enforcement officials in Brooklyn, N.Y., also announced they had launched an investigation into ACORN's Brooklyn office following the release of the third videotape.
Dating back to as early as 2004, and as recently as last week, ACORN workers in at least nine states — including Colorado, Pennsylvania and Ohio — have been charged with various crimes related to voter fraud. At least 50 people have been arrested in connection to ACORN-related voter fraud in those states, with four arrest warrants currently outstanding in Florida. At least 30 of these cases reportedly culminated with guilty pleas.
During the 2008 presidential election alone, ACORN reportedly gathered more than 1.3 million voter registration forms in 21 states, many of which were later flagged for official review. Ultimately, roughly 400,000 of those registrations were rejected as incomplete, duplicated or fraudulent. A total of 450,000 registrations were for first-time voters, while the remaining forms were for change of addresses.
According to its Web site, ACORN "does not apply for nor does it receive any federal grants," but the organization has had contracts with other nonprofit groups to perform work on projects that have received federal grant support. For instance, ACORN has procured contracts to increase registration for food stamps, to counsel homeowners facing foreclosure and to provide lead paint remediation services.
In July, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., issued a report by the minority staff of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that found that since 1994, ACORN had received more than $53 million in federal funds.
Furthermore, an analysis of federal records by Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, found that ACORN affiliates in 11 states receive more than $31 million in federal funds from 1998 to 2008. ACORN Housing Corporation, meanwhile, received nearly $10.7 million in federal grants in 2008 alone.