ACORN and voter registration

Discussion list for COMM-ORG colist at
Wed Oct 22 13:55:23 CDT 2008

[ed:  developments with ACORN are coming very quickly, and are worth 
following.  First below is a post from Nathan.  Also, a New York Times 
article discusses an internal report to ACORN.  See 
for the Times article "Acorn Report Raises Issues of Legality." (this 
article was behind a member logon for me, so you may need to do a search 
for the article title if the url does not work).  ACORN's response 
includes a statement from the lawyer who issued the report and disputes 
the spin of the Times article.   ACORN has also announced Bertha Lewis's 
selection as chief organizer.  I do not find these two things on their 
website, so am sending them out from their e-mail list.  The ACORN 
website, has a great deal of reading on all of 
this.  There are clearly many issues to be discussed here.  Passions for 
and against ACORN are both very strong, and I encourage a careful, 
reflective analysis.  Some thoughts from me at the end.]

From: "Nathan Henderson-James" <nathanhj at>

ACORN and Brave New Films have released a video responding directly the 
attacks on ACORN's voter registration work. You can find it here:

Feel free to watch and send around. People need to see the truth about 
ACORN's work.

Nathan Henderson-James


From: Steven Kest <legrep at>

October 22, 2008

To:  ACORN friends and allies
Fr:  Steven Kest and Bertha Lewis

We wanted to let you know about an article in this morning's New York 
Times which is inaccurate and misleading in the extreme.

The article, headlined "ACORN Report Raises Issues of Legality", 
misconstrues beyond recognition a June 2008 confidential report prepared 
to guide ACORN's board in the wake of ACORN founder Wade Rathke's 
departure from the organization.

The ACORN board, fully cognizant of its responsibilities as stewards of 
the organization, took a number of steps in early June to ensure that 
the organization was being effectively and appropriately managed.  They 
brought in an outside accounting firm to review the organization's 
financial procedures.  They asked the Sidley Austin law firm to examine 
decisions made in 1999-2000 regarding the embezzlement of organizational 
funds by Rathke's brother.  And they asked outside counsel Beth 
Kingsley, of Harmon Curran, to conduct a full review of governance, 
corporate structure, and related issues for ACORN and its affiliated 

An early draft of Kingsley's report, which was presented to the full 
board at its June 20th meeting, found its way to Stephanie Strom of the 
Times and was the basis for her article this morning.

The report made a long list of recommendations for improving governance 
of ACORN and its family of organizations.  Virtually all of these 
recommendations were adopted or are in the process of being adopted.  
Affiliate boards were strengthened.  New board policies were adopted, 
including protections for whistleblowers, prohibitions on conflicts of 
interest and nepotism, and requirements for document retention.  And 
additional safeguards to ensure that all funds are spent appropriately 
were put in place.

Given the heightened scrutiny that ACORN's civic engagement work was 
likely to encounter during an election year (an expectation which has 
been amply born out in the last several weeks), Kingsley's report 
discussed the relationship between ACORN and Project Vote.  Kingsley 
recommended that ACORN and Project Vote pay close attention to 
documenting the strictly non-partisan nature of the voter registration 
drives carried out jointly by ACORN and Project Vote.  She suggested 
this because it is good policy and practice, and, she wrote, in order to 
"create a solid defense against whatever accusations might be thrown at 
them".  Throughout the report she said certain steps "must be taken in 
order to fully protect the organization against its enemies' 
allegations".  Nowhere in Kingsley's report is there any hint that this 
work was being conducted outside the letter of the law.  To the 
contrary:  her report argued that we needed to do a better job of 
documenting that the work was being conducted appropriately and in a 
non-partisan fashion, so that we could incontrovertibly prove this when 
we were attacked.

Here is Beth Kingsley's statement in response to the Times article

    Statement of Elizabeth Kingsley

 >>begin quote>>
    Ms. Strom's article in today's New York Times misrepresents the 
purpose and context of my June memo as well as  my conclusions and 
recommendations.  I was providing confidential advice to a group of 
organizations that I knew would come under just the sort of politically 
motivated attacks we have seen this fall.  My advice was offered for the 
organizations to be prepared to defend themselves against any imaginable 
allegation that might be brought.  Accordingly, I flagged areas where I 
had concerns about their ability to affirmatively and formally prove the 
absence of legal violations.  This is a far cry from stating that any 
actual violation had occurred or even that it may have.
    The report that Ms. Strom describes was delivered to the ACORN board 
less than two weeks after I began work on the project.  It was based on 
an examination of procedural and structural relationships, not extensive 
field work to examine specific transactions or operations. It identified 
potential weaknesses in the ability to prove a negative - that funds 
were not misused.  My report did not analyze the use of any 501(c)(3) 
funds or Project Vote's operations, other than to say that "I am not 
worried about the content of this program" from the 501(c)(3) 
perspective, based on all my knowledge of that program.  
    Regarding the relationship between ACORN and Project Vote and the 
use of charitable funds, the legal standard is an ill-defined "facts and 
circumstances" analysis.  In the face of such a vague and subjective 
legal test, a cautious approach will advise stricter and clearer 
separation than would be absolutely required.  Knowing that political 
attacks would be coming, I used strong language to alert the 
organizations to the need to take such a careful approach, saying that 
they "must take certain steps in order to fully protect the organization 
against its enemies' allegations."  I did not say "must do this in order 
to follow the law."  I said I "cannot confirm", based on my review to 
that time, how strategic decisions had been made based on the 
information I had compiled in those two weeks.  I had uncovered and 
reported no evidence that decisions had been made improperly.  I did not 
by any means conclude that there was "potentially improper use of 
charitable dollars for political purposes." 
    Indeed,  the written contract governing the joint voter registration 
efforts between Project Vote and ACORN requires that all work be 
scrupulously nonpartisan, and that both take steps to ensure that their 
operations provide neither support nor opposition, assistance or 
hindrance to any candidate or party.  There is a procedure for selecting 
jurisdictions that gives Project Vote staff the right to make final 
selections based on its own research and nonpartisan criteria.  ACORN 
must certify that any targeting recommendations it might make are based 
on nonpartisan considerations only.  
    The law does not prohibit people wearing two hats, or playing a role 
in a nonpartisan charity while also being politically involved in a 
different capacity.  I raised concerns about such situations because of 
the challenge for an embattled organization of proving that certain 
decision-making was insulated from political considerations.  There is 
absolutely no IRS guidance that requires such separation of roles.  In 
fact, recent guidance indicates that an individual's work for a charity 
will not necessarily be tainted by their political involvement outside 
of that role.  However, to avoid the nearly impossible task of having to 
prove a negative, a charity that expects to be challenged does well to 
go beyond the minimum legal requirements.
    My June memo was intended to encourage the organizations to create a 
solid defense against whatever accusations might be thrown at them, not 
to state a legal baseline that had not been met.  
<<end quote<<

In summary, and contrary to the implications of the Times story, 
Kingsley's report is an example of an organization and its board taking 
comprehensive steps to improve its governance and ensure that its work 
is conducted in accordance with all appropriate laws.

From: Brian Kettenring <fieldrdso at>

Immediate Release
October 21, 2008
For More Information
Contact Brian Kettenring
flacornho at or 727-692-7215

Bertha Lewis Named Chief Organizer of ACORN

Announces Clean Break with the Past, Vision for the Future

October 21, 2008 ~ Bertha Lewis has been officially named Chief 
Organizer of ACORN.  Ms. Lewis had been acting as Interim Chief 
Organizer since Wade Rathke resigned.

In an October 19th board meeting at ACORN~s national headquarters in New 
Orleans, Bertha Lewis was elected Chief Organizer by an overwhelming 
margin (43-5), eliminating the "Interim" from her title.  Bertha 
previously held the position of Executive Director of New York ACORN.  
Bertha has more than 20 years experience as an organizer working for 
affordable housing and social justice, and has worked for New York ACORN 
since 1992.

During her tenure as Executive Director, New York ACORN has organized 
tens of thousands of families in low-income neighborhoods, and won 
landmark victories on the state and local level.  In 2002, Lewis helped 
to form a city-wide coalition of labor, religious, community and 
political groups that passed a new Living Wage law in City Council, 
covering over 50,000 New Yorkers. Recent achievements include successful 
campaigns to save 6,000 units of affordable housing in Brooklyn~s 
Starrett City Housing complex and winning union representation for 
28,000 Home Childcare Providers.

A native of Philadelphia, Lewis originally came to New York as a theater 
producer and became an education activist.  In a protracted battle with 
the city of New York and a notorious landlord, Lewis became a tenant and 
housing rights leader, and in 1988 she went to work for the Banana Kelly 
Community Organization as a tenant and community organizer.

Frequently seen commenting on social justice issues in the New York 
Times and other national and local press, Lewis was named ~one of the 
100 Most Influential Women of New York 2007, by Crain's magazine and one 
of the state's "Influentials" in politics by New York magazine 2006.

Following her appointment to national Chief Organizer, Ms. Lewis said 
"This represents a new beginning for ACORN.  After 38 years under one 
Chief Organizer, the Board has made a clean break from the past.  I am 
honored to have the confidence of the board, and I am 150% committed to 
ensuring ACORN remains the most powerful community organization of low- 
and moderate-income families in the nation.  We are proud of all ACORN 
has accomplished and are determined to make it even more transparent and 
effective in fighting for policies that help all low- and 
moderate-income families in the years ahead.~

During this meeting, the board reviewed governance issues, adopted a 
number of policies, and set a new direction for the future of the 
organization.  The board adopted a set of governance and procedural 
policies including:

    * A Conflict of Interest Policy
    * A Whistleblower Protection Policy
    * An Anti-Nepotism Policy
    * A Document Retention and Destruction Policy
ACORN Board Member Marie Pierre, the National Delegate for New York, and 
Northeast Regional Representative, said, ~This board meeting was 
structured differently than any before.  We received documents in 
advance, had opportunities to review those documents, and were given an 
opportunity to have real input.  Bertha, since being named Interim Chief 
Organizer, has promoted an open door policy.~

The board also discussed and is moving forward on:

    * Establishing an audit committee, which will report directly to the 
    * Establishing a committee to direct legal counsel in the 
organization's efforts to disentangle organizations in its network or 
using its name from its former chief organizer, Wade Rathke.
    * Finalizing payment schedules for tax payments that fell behind 
schedule during the period immediately after Hurricane Katrina struck 
its national headquarters in New Orleans.
    * Encouraging each of the entities in the network of organizations 
that ACORN helps to lead, to examine and, where appropriate, strengthen 
its own board and governance structures

In addition, recognizing that any organization that has as big an impact 
on public policy as ACORN will always be under attack, it will be taking 
additional steps to even more fully document the policies and procedures 
that already ensure that all work conducted with 501~3 funds are 
entirely non-partisan and that all other appropriate legal boundaries 
continue to be scrupulously maintained.

Rev. Gloria Swieringa, Chair of Maryland ACORN and head of Maryland's 
predatory lending work, was optimistic about the board's progress. 
"We've obviously been through a traumatic time recently, but in a way 
it's been a blessing in disguise.  This has given us an opportunity to 
reaffirm the organization's goals, and define more efficient processes, 
and I feel confident about the direction we're heading."


[ed:  as full disclosure, I worked with ACORN in a program partnering 
with community development corporations trying to do community 
organizing in Toledo Ohio, and with their grassroots school improvement 
campaign in Chicago, both about a decade ago, and more recently and 
briefly with a nascent organizing effort in Madison, so I have some 
experience with the group.  My experience with the other major 
organizing networks has been much more fleeting and indirect--mostly 
with IAF and DART.  Most of my experience has been with about a dozen 
other "unaffiliated" groups who do various versions of community 

Based on this experience and what I have read, ACORN seems distinct in 
its approach and strategy, working more with the poorest communities and 
with more of a traditional confrontational strategy.  If I am correct 
(and I admit that I may not be), what are the implications of such a 
model?  Is such a model more likely to introduce internal conflict as 
well as external conflict?  What are the strengths and vulnerabilities 
of a community organizing group that has a more confrontational 
strategy?  ACORN also, in contrast to most (if not all) of the other 
networks, has until recently had the same leader since its founding.  My 
sense is there have been fairly dramatic shifts in focus and strategy 
with the other networks as new leaders have stepped in.  I'm not talking 
here about whether long-term leadership necessarily leads to corruption, 
but the risks and benefits of such a structure in a changing context.  
Or does the heat being generated around and within ACORN show the 
continuing importance of its approach and perhaps the context has not 
changed as much as we thought? 

As you can see, my questions are less about ACORN than they are about 
broader community organizing theory (for me a ground-level theory of 
practice but theory nonetheless).  It is really easy to "psychologize" 
what is going on with ACORN--to treat it as a consequence of the 
personalities of either its supporters or detractors.  I don't discount 
the role of personalities, but I think our culture is too comfortable 
with a psychological, individualist analysis to the neglect of a 
sociological, systems analysis.  What are the broader political economic 
systems at play here, and how does an ACORN-style strategy fit in with 
those systems?  More specifically, what are the risks of massive voter 
registration strategies, employing people who have been historically 
excluded from education, income, and political access?  What are the 
risks of not using such a strategy?  What are the risks of jumping into 
the political fray for an organization trying to manage and keep 
501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) functions separate?  What are the risks 
associated with an organizational strategy that operates with as little 
funding as possible compared to an organizational strategy that requires 
much higher levels of funding to provide higher income and job security 
for organizers?

ACORN is in the news, but these issues reach much further than ACORN, 
and my hope is that we can have this broader and deeper discussion.  
There are certainly questions of fact on which some of the answers hinge 
(and which we may not be able to establish), but I hope to avoid a 
superficial "is ACORN good or bad" charge-counter-charge go-around.  And 
certainly feel welcomed to question my questions as I may be unwittingly 
assuming things that are not accurate.]

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