States aim at ACORN, but little money at stake

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Published: September 23,2009

ST. PAUL, Minn. — As support for the community activist group ACORN withered in Congress in the wake of a hidden-camera scandal, Republican governors and other state officials moved swiftly to sever ties. It turns out the group often commanded little – if any – state business.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, seen as a possible 2012 GOP presidential candidate, directed his budget commissioner to stop all state funding to ACORN except where "the state is legally obligated to provide such funding." None of Minnesota’s money was going to the group, and hadn’t for more than a year.

An order from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, also seen as a possible 2012 contender, resulted in blocking two possible ACORN social services contracts worth a combined $13,750.

ACORN’s loss of federal contracts will cost it millions, but an Associated Press survey found 37 states with no known active ties to the group and just one current contract: $365,000 for foreclosure counseling in New York, now on hold pending a 30-day review ordered by Democratic Gov. David Paterson. Officials in five other states still were checking their databases.

Other Republican governors taking aim at ACORN included Rhode Island’s Don Carcieri and Mississippi’s Haley Barbour. Rhode Island hasn’t identified any current contracts with the group; Mississippi officials were reviewing their records.

Analysts said conservative politicians have nothing to lose by going after ACORN, short for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, after employees were caught on video telling a couple posing as a prostitute and pimp how to lie to get government help. Republicans criticized the group to connect with their conservative base long before the U.S. House and Senate voted last week to sever ACORN’s federal funding.

"You know it’s an applause line," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, an expert on political communication at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "You know the audience is ready to grant your premise. And those who are positioning for 2012 need to win primaries and the way you win primaries is to play to the base."

ACORN also has been accused of voter registration fraud and lost $1 million to embezzlement by the founder’s brother.

Republicans are strategically piling on, said Sam Hoff, a Delaware State University political science professor.

"The folks see blood in the water and they believe that an ideologically opposite organization is on the ropes," Hoff said.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has called on the state attorney general to investigate ACORN’s activities there. The attorney general’s office is reviewing the videos, including an exchange recorded in San Diego. Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland also has said that state would investigate potential wrongdoing in a video recorded in ACORN’s Baltimore office.

Pawlenty, meanwhile, said his caution about state funding is warranted.

"With those kind of concerns in the air, it’s prudent to put the clutch in and evaluate relationships with them," he said Tuesday. He noted the state last paid ACORN $7,500 in 2008, and added: "It is possible they could have been in line or would attempt to get state money in the future. We want to make sure we have our eyes open."

ACORN’s Minnesota branch called Pawlenty’s criticism was unfair.

"It is disappointing that the governor is taking this easy political potshot instead of finding out the facts," said Sunday Alabi, a member of the group’s board of directors.

Republican governors aren’t the only state officials going after ACORN.

Two Wisconsin GOP state lawmakers pressed this week for an audit of the group’s state ties, prompting two agencies to report that no state money goes to ACORN.

And a Pennsylvania Republican lawmaker’s attempt to bar politically active groups from receiving state money failed last week on a procedural vote in the Democratic-controlled state House. ACORN has been barred from legally soliciting contributions in Pennsylvania until it registers as a charitable organization or provides evidence that it is exempt from the registration law.

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