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Allison Kilkenny Headshot

ACORN Chief Executive: "We're Not Afraid"

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This morning, I interviewed Bertha Lewis, Chief Executive Officer and Chief Organizer of ACORN, the largest community organization in the country. ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, helps poor people register to vote, fight for fair wages, find affordable housing, and improve the conditions of their local schools. Naturally, Republicans want to destroy them. I asked Lewis how it feels to be a GOP target, about Congress's decision to defund ACORN, and the recent revelations about the source of funds for the infamous ACORN videos created by John O'Keefe.

O'Keefe has repeatedly said that he is "absolutely independent" and received no outside funding to make his films. However, the Village Voice reports that he actually has heavyweight conservative backers including Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook. Depending on who you ask, Thiel invested anywhere from $10,000 (according to his representatives) to $30,000 (according to early Voice reports) into O'Keefe's ACORN project.

Thiel is a gay man who has railed against the evils of "multiculturalism." He now lives in San Francisco and runs a hedge fund. With the help of his sugar daddy, O'Keefe made the now infamous ACORN videos, an illegal act in itself, says Lewis. "You cannot secretly tape someone without their permission, and so he broke the law," she says.

Though she calls the behavior of the former ACORN employees "inexcusable" and "indefensible," and immediately took action to fire them when she learned of the videos, Lewis also called O'Keefe a man of "questionable character." ACORN has brought a lawsuit against O'Keefe and his partner, better known as the woman who will forever be the ho (her parents must be thrilled) to O'Keefe's pimp, Hannah Giles.

The videos are edited very creatively -- if I'm being generous -- to show only the ACORN employees who engaged in shady behavior, and not the dozens of other ACORN offices from which O'Keefe and Company were ejected, and in a few cases, ACORN employees called the police on the duo. In no instance was the paperwork for the fictional pimp and prostitute successfully filed. The cases were all red-flagged as soon as employees in higher echelons noticed the suspicious details of their story.

I'm sure you heard all about that part on FOX (...or maybe not.)

Lewis believes O'Keefe was motivated by a desire to stop ACORN's successful process of registering poor and minority people to vote.

"Mr. O'Keefe...actually admitted that one of the reasons he did this was because ACORN was organizing poor people, making sure that they voted, and most of those folks, generally, would not vote Republican. And he wanted to put a stop to this because too many minorities were voting. He actually said this."

A September 19 article about ACORN in the New York Times reads:

James O'Keefe, one of the two filmmakers, said he went after ACORN because it registers minorities likely to vote against Republicans: ''Politicians are getting elected single-handedly due to this organization,'' O'Keefe told the Washington Post. ''No one was holding this organization accountable.'

While Lewis is the first to admit ACORN isn't a perfect organization, she worries that the targeting of ACORN will leave other community groups susceptible to the whims of a certain political party that really, really doesn't want poor, black, and brown people to vote Democrat.

ACORN recently lost their federal funding under the Defund ACORN Act, which essentially punishes the organization for allegations that have never been examined in court. The Defund ACORN Act states that an organization should be banned from receiving federal funding if it "employs any applicable individual, in a permanent or temporary capacity" or "has under contract or retains any applicable individual" who has "been indicted for a violation under any Federal or State law governing the financing of a campaign for election for public office or any law governing the administration of an election for public office, including a law relating to voter registration." This standard is only being applied to ACORN, and not, say, Blackwater.

Because of the highly selective, targeted nature of the vote to defund ACORN, many critics have declared the act unconstitutional. Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald writes, "The irony of all of this is that the Congress is attempting to accomplish an unconstitutional act: singling out and punishing ACORN, which is clearly a 'bill of attainder' that the Constitution explicitly prohibits -- i.e., an act aimed at punishing a single party without a trial."

ACORN is most definitely being singled out and targeted by Republicans. For example, Karl Rove sent emails while he was in the George Bush White House that show ACORN was targeted because of the group's successful voter registration campaigns. Rove specifically sent David Iglesias and others to find some sort of prosecution for alleged voter registration fraud. When Iglesias came back and said there was no evidence that ACORN had committed fraud, he was fired among other attorneys, and that led to the Alberto Gonzales Attorneygate scandal in which then Attorney General Gonzales was dismissed.

"We now have those emails going back to 2004 where you clearly see that ACORN was targeted politically for our actions because we actually were very effective in making sure that poor people, people of color, especially minorities in this country, have a voice," says Lewis.

Apparently, the media and the American people have forgotten this very clear example of political targeting, and quickly joined the ACORN witch-hunt once again even though Republicans are attacking ACORN in the exact same fashion. ACORN is a convenient scapegoat for the Republicans, who desperately needed to distract attention from the fiery train wreck known as the Bush administration, which systematically destroyed America's reputation, military, and economy for eight long years.

In the hysterical rush to condemn ACORN, the GOP (with an assist, as always, from FOX News) has successfully distracted Americans from the real culprits of government bailouts and contract scandals, specifically government defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, both major donors to the Republican and Democratic Parties. Lockheed Martin has been forced to pay at least $68 million for getting caught 11 separate times committing government contract fraud. Northrop Grumman has had to pay around $500 million for getting caught nine times for contract fraud.

Then there's the gold standard for corruption, Blackwater, the private mercenary company that was recently found to have defrauded the government of $55 million. And as Rachel Maddow points out, that's just one Blackwater contractor, and they've got lots of contracts. This doesn't even count Blackwater's little murder problem. Five Blackwater employees have been charged with murder during the course of their government contracted duties in Iraq. Yikes.

But you like your scandals to involve prostitutes, you say. Fear not! The government contractor known as ArmorGroup has you covered. ArmorGroup personnel, who are the recipients of taxpayer money, were also allegedly engaged in a prostitution ring in Kabul. Oh, and there's also DynCorp, which sent at least 13 DynCorp employees home from a U.S. government contract in Bosnia after they were found to be taking part in a Bosnian sex slave ring involving underage girls. Double Yikes.

Yet, somehow, we're being sold the lie that ACORN is the big villain here. In an interview on Salon Radio, Grayson said, "The amount of money that ACORN has received in the past 20 years altogether is roughly equal to what the taxpayer paid to Halliburton each day during the war in Iraq." Halliburton was accused of unlawfully receiving special treatment for work in Iraq, Kuwait and the Balkans, and was caught overcharging the Pentagon for fuel deliveries into Iraq. But nevermind. Former Halliburton CEO, Dick Cheney, gets to parade around television as the "serious voice" of Conservatism, while ACORN is publicly flogged for the behavior of a few bad employees.

Of course, neither Republicans nor Democrats are in a rush to defund Blackwater, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, or any of the other major defense contractors because these companies are extremely bipartisan in their campaign donations. It's smart business to buy off both parties, so that way the entire government works for the company, and not just one political party.

Big money can buy big access to political power. Once corporations control politicians, those elected officials will then vote to uphold the structure facilitating their corporate donors. This is true for defense contractors, but it's also true for the giant financial institutions (also major donors for both political parties,) which have been happily raiding the Federal Reserve with the blessing of the government.

I asked Lewis if it annoyed her a little bit that Goldman Sachs employees got fat bonuses from taxpayer dollars for helping to destroy the economy, while Congress stripped a group finding houses for poor people of its federal funding. "Absolutely," says Lewis, "People can say what they want, but I know this is such a true right wing, Conservative campaign against us, and it's not fair, it's not just, and it's not the American way. Why start to attack those at the bottom? Start with the big guys at the top."

Perhaps ACORN was fighting for the wrong people. The poor and people of color don't have huge lobbying firms working on their behalf, and they can't buy the right friends in Congress. "We know that we're being used a symbol and a target. And it is frustrating," says Lewis.

However, she plans to keep fighting. "This has happened to other civil rights organizations in the past, and we know that this goes along with doing this kind of work. We're not afraid, we are determined, and we will be around for the next 40 years."

Cross-posted from Allison Kilkenny's blog. Also available on Facebook and Twitter.