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East County Dems denouce short shrift of ACORN

October 22, 2009 - 2:30 pm

East County Democratic Club (ECDC) members expressed outrage last week at what they view as congressional Democrats’ capitulation to a right-wing assault against ACORN, the social-service agency that advocates for poor and moderate-income families.

“This is what frustrates me about the Democrats, our representatives, because they don’t have any backbone,” one member said during a presentation by ACORN’s San Diego County organizer, David Lagstein, at the club’s October meeting. “The Republicans go lock, stock and barrel, and they follow whatever [Republican] leader is speaking up.”

Last month, Congress voted 345-75 to ban all federal funding for ACORN—the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now—after conservative activists used a hidden camera to capture its employees offering sketchy advice on everything from evading taxes to bringing underage girls across the border.

The vote was part of an amendment to the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which is currently before the Senate, where Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer have voted against funding ACORN.

Within days of FOX News airing the videos—recorded in violation of laws in California and other states—ACORN became a cause célèbre of indignation and a delicate subject for Democrats, many of whom began to distance themselves from an organization they had previously championed, including President Obama. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who stood with ACORN board member Martha Sanchez during a 2006 press conference to tout the last minimum-wage increase, called for Attorney General Jerry Brown to conduct an investigation into ACORN.

“He certainly felt differently [about ACORN] then,” Lagstein said Oct. 15, adding that his office was “fully cooperating” with the investigation.

“Some of the investigators visited our offices this morning, and I think they really understand what’s going on,” he said.

San Diego Congressman Bob Filner, one of 75 congressional representatives (all Democrats) who voted to continue funding ACORN, said he was surprised that more of his colleagues didn’t go to bat for the organization.

“Sure, there may be some workers who are not following certain guidelines or being ethical—let’s assume that those employees did that,” Filner told CityBeat. “It doesn’t mean the whole organization is corrupt. If you have a problem with a few employees, well, you get rid of them, but you don’t destroy the whole organization.”

Filner, who has worked closely with ACORN throughout his political career, said he has always found the group to be “ethical and hardworking.”

“It’s one of the few effective organizations that fights for poor people,” he said. “It’s one of the few organizations that’s giving housing advice to people who are being foreclosed on, that works on issues of healthcare and food stamps and education.”

On Monday, San Diego Congresswoman Susan Davis, who voted against funding ACORN, issued a press release about her vote. In it, though acknowledging “the beneficial work done by many of ACORN’s employees,” Davis says the statements captured on tape “leave many unanswered questions about the hiring practices and accountability within the organization.

“It is critical that we ensure that taxpayer dollars are being distributed to organizations that are above board,” she adds, calling for an internal investigation of ACORN’s practices.

ECDC member Bonnie Price said an investigation should proceed. However, Price, an educator who lost $100,000 during last year’s stock market crash, would also like to see an “equal or greater investigation” of the corporations who threw her hard-earned money down a rat hole.

“When ACORN got caught doing petty little things, Congress yanked the money,” she said. “By comparison, Goldman Sachs and AIG and Bank of America and CityBank got billions…. They’re sitting on it and little companies can’t even get loans.

“ACORN is never ever going to be in the position to do any damage like that,” Price said. “They will never bring down the global financial house.”

Lagstein, who relocated to San Diego after serving as Michigan’s ACORN director, characterized the videos as “part of the right-wing’s efforts to derail Obama’s agenda, particularly on healthcare reform.”

“It was very explicitly about, ‘Let’s try and capture the news, rather than the news story being about Obama’s healthcare plan.’”

The loss of federal cash is not as damaging as the damning publicity and the right-wing’s success in derailing ACORN from its mission, Lagstein said. Until further notice, the National City office has suspended its services, “especially the foreclosure counseling and things like that,” he said.

He said the organization, as a whole, was considering whether or not to continue its voter-registration efforts, which largely assist a poor, Democratic-leaning demographic. ACORN’s voter registration work first made the organization the target of right wing attacks in 2004, and again during last year’s presidential election.

“Some of this, I think, frankly, exposed some of the work that we need to do,” Lagstein said, noting that, in many ways, ACORN had been run as if “out of a church basement. We’re in different times than we were in the ‘70s.”

Four ACORN employees caught on tape were fired, including Juan Carlos Vera, from ACORN’s National City office. In the video filmed Aug. 18, Vera asks the ersatz pimp and prostitute how much services cost and advises them that he may know someone who could help get their girls across the border at Tijuana.

According to a release issued after the videos surfaced in September, Vera phoned his cousin Aug. 20 seeking “general advice regarding information he had received about possible human smuggling.” After briefly standing by Vera, a decision was ultimately made by Lagstein and national ACORN officials to terminate his employment.

“I feel like given the media [deluge] it was something that we had to do,” Lagstein said. “I’ve worked for ACORN for 12 years. If the stupidest thing that I said to somebody on a bad day was on a videotape, I probably wouldn’t have a job myself, so I have a lot of personal sympathy [for him]. At the same time, if you watch the tape and watch the conversation that he had, that’s just not something that we can stand behind.”

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