- The Washington Times - Friday, September 18, 2009

House Democrats on Thursday unexpectedly abandoned their longtime ally ACORN, joining Republicans in an overwhelming vote to end all federal funding for the embattled liberal activist group.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) watched its last bastion of support in Washington crumble a week after hidden-camera investigative videos surfaced that showed its workers advising a supposed underage prostitute on how to cheat on taxes and loan applications.

The latest setback followed a decision by the Obama administration to cancel plans for ACORN to work on the 2010 census and a Senate vote to block funding for ACORN in the 2010 housing appropriations bill.

The Republican-sponsored measure, dubbed the Defund ACORN Act, passed on a 345-75 procedural vote as part of an unrelated student loan reform bill. Two Democrats voted present.

The final tally was a startling rebuke from congressional Democrats, who in the past steadfastly supported ACORN in the face of conservative criticisms that the organization skirts tax laws, violates election rules and commits other crimes while heavily supporting Democratic candidates and liberal causes.

The group also had strong ties to President Obama, who prior to his political career worked as an organizer for Project Vote, which later became affiliated with ACORN. One of ACORN’s numerous sister organizations was paid to do work for Mr. Obama’s presidential campaign last year.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, an Ohio Republican who introduced the bill a day earlier, acknowledged that legislation still faced a hard journey to reach final passage by Congress and still must be signed by the president, but he said the vote did not bode well for ACORN.

“Today’s vote indicates that the writing is on the wall for ACORN,” Mr. Boehner said, adding that it was a “victory for American taxpayers.”

In a statement, ACORN Chief Executive Officer Bertha Lewis said Thursday that the group was “disappointed that the House took the rare and politically convenient step of attempting to eliminate federal funding for a single organization, one that has been the target of a multi-year political assault stemming variously from the [George W. Bush] White House, Fox News and other conservative quarters.”

She predicted that the vote would have little impact on the organization’s overall operations, which she said were mostly funded by members and private supporters.

“The only real victims of today’s vote are the families who have benefited from ACORN’s important work,” she said.

Democratic lawmakers also insisted privately that federal funding makes up only a small portion of ACORN’s financial base, even though the group collected at least $53 million since 1994 in federal housing funds alone.

Critics estimate that about 40 percent of ACORN’s funding comes from the government, much of it from money passed through state grant programs.

The lion’s share of ACORN’s federal funding appears to be in grants for its housing programs, which include helping low-income workers secure loans, developing housing projects for low-income residents and aiding distressed homeowners try to avoid foreclosure.

It is difficult to determine exactly how much federal funding ACORN collects because the organization and its more than 300 affiliated groups, which often use the same accounting firm and the same address in New Orleans, can vie for myriad federal grants.

The ACORN Housing Corp. last year took in about $27.8 million from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. That same year, the ACORN Institute got more than $486,000 from the same agency, according to data compiled by Mr. Boehner’s office.

The data showed ACORN got more than $53.6 million from HUD since 1994. That does not include money from other agencies or money to affiliated groups, such as Citizen Services Inc., which beyond taxpayer money took in more than $800,000 performing get-out-the-vote work for President Obama’s 2008 campaign for the White House.

The 172 House Democrats who supported cutting off federal funding to ACORN included House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and Democratic Conference Chairman John B. Larson of Connecticut.

All 75 “no” votes were cast by Democrats, mostly members of either the Congressional Progressive Caucus or the Congressional Black Caucus, including House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina.

Republicans said they were surprised by the ease with which the measure passed and the decision by Democratic leaders not to fight the procedural move that brought it to the floor.

Earlier in the day, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, told reporters that the sting video showed “inexcusable” conduct, but she said it should be left to the House Appropriations Committee to scrutinize ACORN and decide questions of federal funding.

“It’s an organization of hundreds of people. A few people have embarrassed ACORN,” she said. “I think they’re having their own investigation into it. But we have to have our own scrutiny of an organization with an allegation of this kind. And I’m sure that the conference committee will apply that scrutiny.”

ACORN’s Ms. Lewis announced Wednesday a suspension on accepting any new clients for the organization’s service programs and an independent audit of the organization’s systems and processes in an effort to address the scandal.

The videos that battered ACORN’s fortunes were shot by conservative activist James O’Keefe, who appeared in the footage posing as a pimp and was accompanied by a female colleague, Hannah Giles, posing as an underage prostitute.

The pair got counseling at ACORN offices in Baltimore, Washington, New York and San Bernardino, Calif., to obtain a home loan for property where they could conduct a prostitution business, which they said also would employ girls from El Salvador.

At the Baltimore ACORN office, a female worker advised them to conceal their illegal activities when applying for a loan or filing taxes. “From now on, when you are talking about your business, [say] ‘performing artist/dancer,’ ” the adviser said. “You are a performance artist. So, stop saying prostitution.”

She also tells Mr. O’Keefe that he could claim the girls from El Salvador as dependents on the tax return.

ACORN officials said Mr. O’Keefe attempted similar stings at ACORN offices in several other cities - including San Diego, Los Angeles, Miami, New York and Philadelphia - where workers turned him away or called police.