ACORN is launching a wide-ranging lobbying offensive, hoping to salvage the reputation – and the funding – of a group whose reputation has been largely destroyed in the past few weeks.
The community group’s Washington lobbying shop has been quietly meeting with sympathetic congressional offices, reminding them that ACORN’s services help low-income residents of urban areas. On the legal front, the group is playing hardball, filing a lawsuit Wednesday against the conservative activists who produced the now famous undercover film in which a fake pimp and prostitute ask for tax advice at an ACORN office.
But even as they try a Capitol Hill charm offensive and promise internal investigations, ACORN suffered more setbacks on Wednesday. The IRS cut off ties to the group, ending its volunteer tax services. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) – a key supporter — hurt the organization even more Wednesday when he backpedaled and said he would have voted to cut off the group’s funding, after initially saying he would have retained tax money for ACORN.
ACORN officials would not say which congressional offices they’re lobbying, but an ACORN official characterized the group’s efforts as knocking on doors “very lightly” on Capitol Hill, telling Democratic leaders that it would be unwise to stop the flow of all federal funding to the group.
“We were just as shocked and horrified as the American public was” over the pimp video, ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis said Wednesday.
One ACORN staff member said that legislative staff is just “2.5 people” and unable to reach as many offices as they’d like. But they’ll need a lot more manpower than that to change minds in Congress at this point.
The mere word ACORN is politically toxic, and even some of the most liberal Democrats in both chambers of Congress have voted to cut off funding. The ACORN backlash has also put Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a jam within her own caucus. She can’t look weak regarding corruption in a liberal organization – and the moderates her caucus who are vulnerable in 2010 are being targeted by Republicans back home regarding ACORN funding. But Pelosi also has her political antennae tuned to the concerns of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has tried to rally some support for the housing and low income outreach ACORN performs.
An ACORN staffer said the Congressional Black Caucus is still supportive of the group, but while standing outside the CBC Foundation’s Legislative Conference on Wednesday, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), said ACORN’s actions on the video were “very disturbing.” He said he thinks ACORN does a lot of good in urban communities, but he took a hard line.
“We want to make sure no taxpayer dollars are going toward the activities reported. Period,” said Meek. “And until we know, I’m in support of stopping it all until we know it’s not widespread.”
An ACORN government relations staffer said offices have been “pleasant, cooperative and both sides recognize this is a temporary storm.”
ACORN officials say this recent PR and lobbying blitz is less about ensuring the continued flow of federal funding and more about correcting the public perception of its activities, after undercover videos showed staff members offering advice how to run a brothel and evade taxes.
The public relations effort is not limited to the Hill. ACORN announced last Wednesday that it would suspend its free tax clinics nationwide. Lewis and former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger are joining in on the PR campaign in Washington, reaching out to reporters Wednesday afternoon, holding a conference call saying they will take this investigation seriously.
“My name is on the line and so is the name of the firm so we will call them as we see them ,” said Harshbarger, who is a senior counsel at Proskauer Rose LLP.
Leading Democrats are also trying to slow the ACORN implosion, vowing to examine charges closely before formally ending the group’s federal funding. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has called for the Congressional Research Service to investigate all claims and report back immediately.
Conyers, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee met one-on-one – sans staff members – with Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a long-time ACORN opponent on Tuesday, to negotiate a possible congressional investigation.
Democrats have long brushed off criticism of ACORN – Conyers once vowed to investigate, then reversed that promise. But these videos portraying a fake pimp asking for tax advice, however, were hard to ignore. They have been a viral sensation in Washington and nationwide — even prompting comment from President Barack Obama during his Sunday television blitz. James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, conservative filmmakers, posed as an aspiring politician and his prostitute girlfriend ,who said planned to use brothel earnings to fund a future political campaign. ACORN employees were shown in the video giving advice ranging from burying the money in a tin can in the backyard to registering fictitious company names to legitimize the enterprise.
But while politicians and pundits publicly dump on ACORN, there are a few very dim glimmers of hope for the group
House Democratic leaders are making no promises that the defunding measures will actually make it into the final version of the housing appropriations bill. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) says he would wait for “the facts” before making any determinations. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Tuesday sent a letter to Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and other Republicans, saying he would not ask committees to investigate ACORN, as it could distract from issues such as health care overhaul, cyber threats and the war in Afghanistan.
A Pelosi aide said the speaker is not focusing on killing ACORN funding, but rather an investigation into the group to reveal who in the organization should be held responsible. The aide noted, however, that Pelosi is “leaning toward” ending federal funding.
Republicans, meanwhile, plan to keep offering amendments to appropriations bills to ensure that ACORN does not get funding and the videos do not drop out of the public consciousness.