- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Justice Department’s independent inspector general, facing calls for more federal scrutiny of ACORN, opened an investigation of the department’s grants to the embattled liberal community activist group.

The review will include whether ACORN applied for Justice Department grants, received funds and whether the agency performed an audit to account for how ACORN money was used, Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in a letter to Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

Mr. Smith, who requested the probe last week, said the inspector general’s report will “help Congress ensure that money allocated to support law enforcement efforts is not instead used to support criminal conduct.” But he said further investigation is warranted.

“It is clear that ACORN has fostered a culture of corruption,” Mr. Smith said. “With investigations of ACORN now occurring in 20 states, it is time for the FBI to open up a full-scale investigation into possible criminal conduct by ACORN.”

The inspector general’s investigation is the latest sign that ACORN, long allied to Democratic political and party-building causes, is in political jeopardy after hidden-camera videos that surfaced earlier this month showed ACORN workers in Washington, Baltimore and other cities advising a supposed underage prostitute how to cheat on taxes and loan applications.

The fall was precipitous for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). The group had enjoyed close ties to President Obama and congressional Democrats, who in the past steadfastly supported the group against conservative charges it skirts tax laws, violates election rules and commits other crimes while heavily supporting Democratic candidates and liberal causes.

Within a week of the videos surfacing, the Obama administration canceled plans for ACORN to work on the 2010 census, the Senate voted to exclude it from funding in the 2010 housing appropriations bill, and the House voted overwhelmingly to ban all federal funding to the group.

ACORN touts itself as the nation’s largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, campaigning since 1970 on issues such as living wages, better public schools and expanding homeownership. The group said it did not object to the Justice Department audit.

“ACORN members are working overtime as we speak to help solve our nation’s foreclosure crisis,” ACORN spokesman Scott Levenson said. “We welcome the Justice Department inquiry to help bring the truth to light and to allow us to focus on the important issues facing low- and moderate-income Americans. We look forward to working with [the Justice Department] on this inquiry.”

ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis last week tried to head off mounting criticism of the group by announcing plans to retrain staff, suspend the acceptance of new clients and hire an independent auditor to review its operations.

Still, the federal review comes amid increased pressure for scrutiny of ACORN and for the government to sever ties with the group.

Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and a member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, teamed up with Rep. Darrell Issa of California, ranking Republican on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to request similar audits by inspectors general at seven agencies, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Small Business Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Republicans on the House Financial Services Committee also called for an audit of grants to ACORN by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s inspector general.

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.’ ”

The ACORN counselor also told Mr. O’Keefe that he could claim the girls from El Salvador as dependents on his 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 the police.

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