Even as it considered dropping its tarnished name last year, ACORN threatened a whistleblower group composed of former board members with a trademark lawsuit.
Community activists who had held high-ranking ACORN positions have continued, however, to operate under the banner of ACORN 8, which is named for the eight board members who were blocked from investigating an embezzlement scandal.
The whistleblower group remains committed to the ACORN name and the community initiatives outlined in the organization’s mission statement, even as national and state affiliates rebrand themselves.
But it was just more than a year ago that the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now issued an ultimatum demanding that the whistleblower group “cease and desist” in its use of the ACORN name in a letter dated June 11, 2009.
The letter, which has not been previously disclosed, was recently obtained by The Washington Times.
“It is a violation of federal and state law for you to use the ACORN name and mark without the written permission of ACORN,” Arthur Schwartz, the ACORN attorney, wrote in his letter addressed to former board members Karen Inman and Marcel Reid. “Should you continue to do so, you will be liable for monetary damages and injunctive relief.”
The letter set a compliance deadline of June 30, 2009, that was ignored and never enforced. Nevertheless, the fact that ACORN was already working to disassociate itself from its damaged brand name suggests that the letter’s stated ultimatum was merely an act of intimidation aimed at silencing whistleblowers.
Ms. Reid, Ms. Inman and other whistleblowers suspected at that time that ACORN executives were in the early stages of rebranding and remarketing the organization. The announcement last summer that ACORN International had changed its name to Community Organizations International was viewed as a prelude to a more expansive reorganization effort.
The announcement was made by Wade Rathke, the ACORN founder who was forced out after it was revealed that his brother Dale Rathke had embezzled funds while serving as chief financial officer.
Scott Levenson, an ACORN spokesman, denied that any kind of rebranding plan was in the works at that time and released the following statement:
“ACORN is not changing its name,” he said. “ACORN International is a five-year old organization from which ACORN withdrew a year ago as part of an overall restructuring process and requested that they stop using the ACORN name, which they have now done. Wade Rathke was fired as Chief Organizer of ACORN in June 2008.”
On April 1 this year, ACORN’s leadership announced that it was dissolving its national network, but former insiders have suggested that the much-publicized proclamation was duplicitous and intentionally misleading.
“Always note the date, April 1,” Ms. Reid, the ACORN 8 chairwoman, said in an interview. “ACORN is not dissolving. It may be morphing, but it is still is in business and it is still in a position to receive funding, although it may be done under different names.”
Bertha Lewis, ACORN’s chief organizer, acknowledged as much in an e-mail message to supporters that includes a fundraising appeal. “ACORN is not dead!” she wrote. “ACORN is alive because you are alive and still fighting for justice.”
A videotape made public last year showed ACORN workers explaining to an undercover investigative reporter posing as a pimp how they could potentially manipulate financial documents and arrange for illegal services. In the wake of the scandal, national and state affiliates have moved to drop the organization’s name.
But in the letter addressed to the whistleblower group a year ago, ACORN indicated through its attorney that the name was highly coveted and must not be extended to alternative organizations.
“By virtue of its registration and continuous use for over thirty years, our client has the exclusive right to use the ACORN name/mark in connection with community organizing services,” the attorney wrote. “Usage of names like ‘ACORN 8’ without ACORN’s permission has confused third-parties into believing you are part of, you speak for, or have been endorsed by ACORN. Donors, existing members, prospective members, other organizations and public officials are likely to be confused into believing that you are affiliated with and/or sponsored or endorsed by ACORN. It appears you are benefiting from the goodwill established by ACORN at great expense to ACORN. … Given that ACORN posits itself as a grassroots community organization, your use of the ACORN name and mark is likely to result in ongoing damage to ACORN.”
The “goodwill established by ACORN” appeared to run its course last year when corporate benefactors and foundations announced that they would suspend financial support. Despite negative publicity, the whistleblower group sees value in remaining attached to the name as part of its ongoing reform efforts.
“We don’t view the name ACORN 8 as a particular obstacle because ACORN 8 is what we” incorporated as an LLC, Ms. Reid said. “ACORN does not and cannot own the name; it’s an acronym and we LLC’d the name ACORN itself as part of ACORN 8 and we don’t see this as an impediment at all. We want to keep the name ACORN 8 as a way to bring the people in ACORN to some level of accountability. The people we named in our original complaint have not answered for what they have done.”
Since ACORN wrote the June 2009 letter, the whistleblower group has expanded to more than 20 members, Ms. Reid said. In July 2008, board members who are now part of ACORN 8 submitted 31 questions at an ACORN national meeting that included requests for the following information:
• Listing of all accounting firms (with contact information) for all ACORN-related entities.
• Copy of all existing contracts with the accounting firms for all ACORN-related entities.
• Copy of all organizational documentation for the chief organizer fund.
• Copy of all ACORN-related payments made to the chief organizer fund.
After persisting in their push for a wider investigation, Ms. Reid and Ms. Inman ultimately were removed from their board positions.
“How can anyone oppose the original mission of ACORN, which is to empower lower- and moderate-income people?” Ms. Reid asked. “If those 31 questions had been answered, ACORN would have been forced to close, or clean up.”
ACORN Housing Corp., the national affiliate at the epicenter of the videotape scandal, has renamed itself Affordable Housing Centers of America. Several state affiliates followed suit and rebranded themselves.
Despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld the congressional ban on funding for ACORN, Rep. Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Republican, said she sees little appetite among Democrats to permanently cut off federal support.
“ACORN’s cover has been blown and its true identity has been revealed, but it remains a viable entity beneath different names with the same patrons and same funding sources,” she said in an interview. “I don’t see a tremendous change in the structure that called itself ACORN. But there is more scrutiny, which means they have to play a more sophisticated shell game.”
Moreover, Mrs. Bachmann said, the renamed entities remain well-positioned to receive support from left-leaning foundations and corporations that are no longer burdened by the ACORN name.
An internal memo recovered from ACORN’s California branch that became public last year makes it clear that the self-described network of community organizers recognized that maintaining the name would complicate fundraising efforts and undermine its relationship with elected officials.
“The name ACORN has been dragged through the mud and we are coming across a number of people and groups who want to work with us, want to support the work we have been doing, but feel that they can only do so, if we change our name,” the memo says.