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Jewish World Review
Nov. 8, 2006
/ 17 Mar-Cheshvan, 5767
Grapes of Rathke: Acorn, a liberal activist group, comes under scrutiny. About time
John H. Fund
The Democratic oak has grown, in part, from Acorn, a feisty, union-backed activist group. The organization says on its Web site that it "registered over 540,000 low-income and minority voters" and deployed over 4,000 get-out-the-vote workers for yesterday's elections. But after years of scandal involving its election efforts and misuse of government grants, Acorn is finally coming under scrutiny, with four of its Kansas City, Mo., workers under indictment for submitting false voter registrations. (As of this writing, all are at large.) Other states including Pennsylvania and Maryland are also conducting probes. Notes the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas City: "This national investigation is very much ongoing."
Founded by union organizer Wade Rathke in 1970, Acorn boasts an annual budget of some $40 million and operates everything from "social justice" radio stations to an affordable-housing arm. Still run after 36 years by Mr. Rathke as "chief organizer," it is best known for its campaigns against Wal-Mart, and for leading initiatives in six states to raise the minimum wage.
One of those states is Missouri. St. Louis election officials were so inundated with bogus Acorn-generated voter registrants that they mailed a letter to 5,000 registrants, requesting the recipients to contact them. Fewer than 40 responded. Mr. Rathke attacked the officials as "slop buckets" and claimed they had "broken the law in trying to discourage new voters illegally."
City officials scoff at that. They say it's up to Acorn to explain why over 1,000 addresses listed on its registrations don't exist. "We met twice with Acorn before their drive, but our requests completely fell by the wayside," says Democrat Matt Potter, the city's deputy elections director. His election clerks were already putting in 13-hour work days and "dumping this on them isn't fair." In the past, several Democrats, including Mayor Francis Slay, have complained about bloated voter rolls leading to stolen votes.
Acorn insists any problems stem from dishonest former employees. Mr. Rathke says he is actively cooperating with the probe in Kansas City, and has alerted prosecutors in other states about registration problems. That doesn't satisfy Melody Powell, the Republican chairwoman of the Kansas City Board of Elections, who says Acorn's claim that it brought the fraud to light is "seriously misleading." She says her staff first took the evidence to the FBI, and Acorn only then helped identify the perpetrators. According to Ms. Powell, 40% of the 35,000 registrations it submitted appear bogus. "It's a potential recipe for fraud," she says, noting that "anyone can find a voter card mailed to a false apartment building address lying around a lobby and use it to vote." Ms. Powell worries legitimate voters who were registered a second time by someone else under a false address will find it difficult to vote.
Mr. Rathke explains that Missouri's problems came about because his organizers were required to turn in all registrations within seven days of being collected "even if the name on them was Donald Duck," and that state law discouraged them from sending copies of the forms out of state to Acorn's Little Rock office, which would have done quality-control checks. Election officials say Acorn was responsible for policing its own work.
Current and former Acorn employees say the problems in Kansas City and St. Louis are no accident. "There's no quality control on purpose, no checks and balances," says Nate Toler, currently head organizer of an Acorn campaign against Wal-Mart in Merced, Calif. In 2004 he worked on an Acorn voter drive in Missouri, and says Acorn statements aren't to be taken at face value: "The internal motto is 'We don't care if it's a lie, just so long as it stirs up the conversation.'" Mr. Toler expects to be attacked as a disgruntled employee, and that "I may have my head chopped off for telling the truth." Indeed, he has this year filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint alleging that Acorn has consistently promoted whites to management positions over equally qualified blacks. But his allegations are backed by three former Acorn employees who have filed similar EEOC complaints.
One of them, Sashanti Bryant of Detroit, Mich., was a community organizer for Acorn. She told me it has a problem paying employees on time and has almost no minorities in its upper echelons. Loretta Barton, until June of this year a lead Acorn organizer from Dayton, Ohio, and another EEOC complainant, told me that "all Acorn wanted from registration drives was results." Ms. Barton alleges that when she and her co-workers asked about forming a union they were slapped down: "We were told if you get a union, you won't have a job." There is some history here: In 2003, the National Labor Relations Board ordered Acorn to rehire and pay restitution to three employees it had illegally fired for trying to organize a union.
In response, Mr. Rathke says he is neutral on internal union-organizing efforts and that "when you're dealing with thousands of employees a year you'll have some who complain." He also said the four complaints lodged with the EEOC had all been dismissed. When told that wasn't the case, he said "there may be some loose ends to be tied up . . . I'm not going to impugn any of the people involved."
Still, Acorn is vulnerable to charges it doesn't practice what it preaches. Its manual for minimum-wage campaigns says it intends "to push for as high a wage as possible." But it doesn't pay those wages. In 2004 Acorn won a $9.50 an hour minimum wage in Santa Fe, N.M., for example, but pays its organizers $25,000 a year for a required 54-hour week $8.90 an hour. This year Acorn had workers in Missouri sign contracts saying they would be "working up to 80 hours over seven days of work." Mr. Rathke says "We pay as much as we can. If people can get more elsewhere, we wish them well."
In 1995 Acorn unsuccessfully sued California to be exempt from the minimum wage, claiming that "the more that Acorn must pay each individual outreach worker . . . the fewer outreach workers it will be able to hire." Mr. Rathke acknowledges higher wages can cost some jobs but that the raises for other workers are worth it.
Last year, Acorn helped convince the House to create an "affordable housing trust fund," allocating up to 5% of the profits generated by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to groups such as Acorn that build affordable housing. The Senate failed to act on the bill, but it will surely be reintroduced.
But previous federal grants to Acorn have been highly controversial. In 1994 the Acorn Housing Corporation was given a $1.1 million grant by AmeriCorps, the federal volunteer agency. An inspector-general found the nonprofit had improperly used AmeriCorps recruits for political purposes; the grant was terminated. A guaranteed stream of federal cash to a group that so often fails audits would invite trouble. Today, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley will send a letter to the IRS asking the agency to investigate Acorn and allied groups for possibly misusing their tax status for political purposes.
On his blog Mr. Rathke dismisses criticism as "major league political harassment . . . crazy words." Lashing out at critics, says Mr. Toler, is "just Wade being Wade, engaging in the politics of distraction." Another former Acorn employee says the group has become a "cult" under Mr. Rathke, and must increasingly take bigger risks in order to grow. What risks it might take in pursuit of its agenda can only be surmised though some clues may emerge from the ongoing federal investigations of Acorn's electoral activities.
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JWR contributor John H. Fund is author, most recently, of "Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)
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© 2006, John H. Fund