Willing To Let ACORN Die

October 1st, 2009 · 3 Comments · Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

I’m coming into this topic a little late, but before too much more time passes I want to express disappointment about something the Albuquerque Journal has failed to cover.

Last month, the scandal broke involving ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). I was out of state and didn’t see how the Journal handled it, but was glad to see Peter St. Cyr reporting on the scandal’s local repercussions as one of his first stories for Heath Haussamen’s acclaimed NMPolitics.net Web site . Surely, I thought, the Journal won’t be able to ignore this, and will do a similar story on how the scandal is affecting New Mexico’s ACORN affiliates and the local people they serve.

It’s October, and it hasn’t happened yet.

Catching up on back issues, I see the state’s leading newspaper covered the national angle of the unfolding saga almost daily, using the Associated Press. Coverage commenced Sept. 11 with the firing of two Baltimore ACORN employees after one was caught on videotape cooperating with an undercover team posing as pimp and prostitute and trying to get tax and housing assistance.

(At this point, I think I need to interject that the Baltimore employees’ actions as portrayed were indeed indefensible, and merited the firing, internal investigation and staff training that followed.)

That first story was followed by AP accounts of the fallout: on Sept. 12 (“Census Cuts Ties With ACORN” in order “to tamp down GOP concerns . . .”), and Sept. 16 (when the GOP called for an investigation of ACORN by the Justice Department, along with the Senate’s vote – at GOP request — to block HUD from giving ACORN grants).

On Sept. 17, the Journal ran a story that included ACORN’s official statement that the Baltimore incident was “indefensible,” with ACORN Chief Executive Bertha Lewis saying no new clients would receive ACORN’s services, pending an internal investigation and staff training. That story included, too, a Florida Republican congressman’s jump on the bandwagon, asking FEMA to repeal money set aside for ACORN to put smoke detectors in the homes of low- and moderate-income families in New Orleans.

Also on Sept. 17: The Journal weighed in with an editorial, “ACORN Scandal Calls For House Cleaning.”

Yet the Journal still had not done any kind of local story assessing whether similar things were going on at local ACORN offices and, at the least, how all this national controversy was affecting the local affiliate and low-income New Mexicans it serves.

In running the AP stories, the Journal failed to include so much as an inserted line indicating ACORN has offices in New Mexico.

The Journal editorial, which called ACORN “one of the nation’s premier liberal activist groups,” listed the benchmarks in the ACORN scandal story, helpfully adding that President Obama has “past ties to the group.” It concluded that ACORN “must clean house and return to what is supposed to be its mission –advocating for the poor, legally. Otherwise, this little piggy’s place at the public trough should dry up.”

After the editorial, the Journal continued to run national ACORN stories almost daily: the House voting to deny ACORN any more federal money in a GOP-led action three days after the Senate did the same (Sept. 18), a history of the group’s problems on the national level (which ran Sept. 20, and which, while carried by the AP,  originated in the Washington Post), Obama’s call for an investigation of the video scandal (Sept. 21) , the Inspector General’s announcement that he is reviewing the group (Sept. 22), ACORN’s hiring of a former Massachusetts attorney general to do its internal investigation (Sept. 23), and Bank of  America suspending its affiliation with ACORN on housing projects (Sept. 29).

It also ran a West Side Journal freelance column lauding the work of the undercover videographers and two scathing columns about ACORN by columnist Kathleen Parker, on Sept. 24 and Sept. 29 . (Note: These last two online links carry different dates and headlines than the print-edition versions, but the text is the same. Notably, the print edition headline on the first of Parker’s columns was “Nothing Good Can Sprout From This Toxic ACORN.”)

The first of these Parker columns is an informative interview with a former ACORN board member who was “booted in the summer 20008 when she tried to examine the organization’s books.” In that column, Parker deftly summarizes the allegations against the national group – “charges of voter registration fraud, embezzlement, tax arrears, corruption and, now, accusations of aiding and abetting illegal immigration, prostitution, tax evasion and child abuse.”

These are serious crimes, and I do not condone any of them. But I can’t help thinking back to the years when I was the Journal’s environment reporter and Albuquerque ACORN workers were there, trying to bring awareness to sides of issues that largely went uncovered, advocating for those too busy struggling to put food on the table to call up a newspaper and ask for help in fighting the water pollution causing “blue baby” syndrome or to complain about the smell and possible health effects of a nearby pollution source.

The GOP is waging a national campaign to eliminate ACORN — not just to get at the root of ACORN’s problems, and not just to ensure a house-cleaning through firings and, where appropriate, filing of charges. When cases of charity embezzlement turned up in several states in 2002, was there a national outcry or political party demand for abolition of the Red Cross?

The difference here is that ACORN assists low-income citizens and people of color with voter registration, efforts that the GOP believes will aid the Democratic Party.

But if the GOP succeeds in eliminating the national ACORN, it stands to reason New Mexico will lose its affiliate offices, even though no charges of embezzlement or aiding and abetting illegal immigration and prostitution have been alleged here. And if New Mexico loses ACORN, will another group take its place and fill the gap?

In his report, St. Cyr quoted ACORN Southwest Regional Director Matthew Henderson as saying ACORN’s Las Cruces and Albuquerque offices normally provide New Mexicans help with avoiding foreclosure and applying for citizenship, and helps them prepare taxes and qualify for low-income heat and energy programs in the winter.  All good things, right?

And in a Sept. 17 statement released to reporters, St. Cyr wrote, Henderson said:

If FOX News had wanted to focus on New Mexico ACORN’s tax preparation work, we only wish that they had brought a hidden camera at the end of tax season, when our offices were open late every night, filing free tax returns for low and moderate-income families. The truth is that ACORN helped over 700 hard-working families in New Mexico collect nearly $700,000 in tax refunds over the past two years and $90 million nationally.

Since the Baltimore scandal broke, however, offices in Albuquerque and Las Cruces are providing limited services to existing clients and the organization has “temporarily” suspended accepting new clients, St. Cyr wrote.

“All that we ask is that the rest of the world judge New Mexico ACORN based on the work we do on behalf of working people here in New Mexico,” Henderson told St. Cyr.

But readers can’t judge the actions of the New Mexico ACORN group if the Journal won’t cover them. It is apparent the Journal is unwilling to investigate what is happening to the New Mexico affiliate and how many low-income New Mexicans might be affected. Instead, it is ignoring its existence, willing to let New Mexico’s ACORN simply die on the vine.

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