- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 13, 2009

The liberal activist group ACORN, reeling after hidden-camera videos showed its employees giving tax advice to a woman posing as a prostitute, went on the offensive Saturday by accusing conservatives of smearing the organization to undermine President Obama’s health care overhaul plans.

The group already had fired two employees in Washington and two in Baltimore who were caught in the sting videos, but the flap prompted the Obama administration late last week to cancel plans for ACORN to work on the 2010 census.

The Baltimore video, which hit the Internet on Thursday and aired Friday on the Fox News Channel, also intensified Republican calls for a congressional probe of ACORN. The group has long weathered charges of criminal activity ranging from voter fraud to racketeering as well as criticism of its financial ties and close cooperation with President Obama’s 2008 campaign for the White House.

“It is no coincidence that the most recent attacks have been launched just when health care reform is gaining traction,” Bertha Lewis, ACORN’s chief organizer, said in a press release Saturday. “It is clear they’ve had these tapes for months.”

Ms. Lewis said conservative forces were conspiring to make ACORN the “Willie Horton for 2009,” referring to the convicted murderer who committed more crimes while on work release from a Massachusetts prison and was featured in a 1988 campaign ad criticizing Democratic presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis as being supposedly soft on crime.

“We are the boogeyman for the right wing and its echo chambers,” Ms. Lewis said.

Calls for an investigation have come from the House Republican Conference and individual members, including Republican Reps. Roscoe G. Bartlett of Maryland and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.

House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, called ACORN an organization “rife with corruption and criminal conduct,” and applauded the Obama administration for kicking the group out of the census.

The group has long been a target for conservatives who say it skirts tax laws and commits other crimes while helping to elect Democratic candidates and promote liberal causes.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, touts itself as the nation’s largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, campaigning since 1970 on issues such as homeownership, living wages and better public schools.

Still, it came under fire during the presidential campaign after investigations of voter fraud in several battleground states, including Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New Mexico and Nevada.

The group and its affiliates are currently the target of at least 14 lawsuits related to voter fraud in the 2008 election and a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act complaint filed by former ACORN members.

ACORN leaders have consistently denied any wrongdoing and even said they welcomed previous attempts to undertake a congressional probe. A Capitol Hill hearing on ACORN appeared to be in the offing in the spring until House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, abruptly changed his mind. He said “the powers that be decided against it.”

A report released during the summer by Republicans on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee presented evidence that ACORN engaged in criminal misconduct including:

• Evading taxes, obstructing justice and aiding and abetting a cover-up of the nearly $1 million embezzled by Dale Rathke, the brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke.

• Committing investment fraud, depriving the public of its right to honest services, and engaging in a racketeering enterprise affecting interstate commerce.

• Committing a conspiracy to defraud the United States by using taxpayer funds for partisan political activities.

• Submitting false filings to the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor, in addition to violating the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The video that returned ACORN to the headlines last week was shot by conservative activist James O’Keefe, who appeared in the footage posing as a pimp and was accompanied by a female colleague posing as a prostitute.

The pair sought ACORN counseling to obtain a home loan for property where they could conduct their prostitution business.

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 as dependents on the tax return some of the teenage girls from El Salvador that he said he planned to employ as prostitutes in the house.

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

She said the secret video recording of the counseling session constituted a crime, likely referring to a violation of Maryland’s wiretap law, and that ACORN would be taking legal action against the Fox News Channel, which she described as “an international entertainment conglomerate disguising itself as a ‘news’ agency.”

“We will not be intimidated by this international conglomerate, which has made as its mission the destruction of our organization,” Ms. Lewis said.

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