ACORN CEO Reflects On The Group's Hard Times

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, has significantly shrunk due to a lack of funding. ACORN came under fire in September after a video surfaced of ACORN employees giving illegal tax advice to two conservative activists posing as a prostitute and a pimp. The secretly taped video was posted on the YouTube and became instantly viral. With its reputation tarnished, ACORN finances began to sink. Congress pulled federal funding and private donors held back cash. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis about the hard times her organization is facing.

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I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll tell you about an all-male school in Chicago that gets an A not just for graduating all of its students, but sending each one to a four-year college. That's in a bit.

But, first, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, has disbanded due to lack of funding. ACORN came under fire last September for a scornful video of ACORN employees giving illegal tax advice to two conservative activists posing as a prostitute and a pimp. The secretly taped video was posted on YouTube and viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

With its reputation tarnished, ACORN finances began to sink. Congress pulled federal funding and private donors held back cash. Joining us now to talk about the end of ACORN is Bertha Lewis, its chief executive officer. Welcome, Bertha, to the program.

Ms. BERTHA LEWIS (CEO, ACORN): Thank you, Allison, so much for having me.

KEYES: This news broke pretty late in the day yesterday. So, can you clarify it for us? Are you guys actually disbanding and why?

Ms. LEWIS: First of all, let me set the record straight. Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEYES: Uh-oh.

Ms. LEWIS: We are transforming, of course. I've been transforming this organization since June of 2008. And, yes, we've had our financial woes, and, yes, we are fighting an unconstitutional ban on any government funding. And, again, it is unconstitutional, but we're transforming. Of course the financial realities forces us to do things a little bit differently. So we've gotten lean.

KEYES: So, what exactly do you mean?

Ms. LEWIS: Well, we've gotten leaner and meaner and some of our state chapters have chosen to go their own way. We haven't been able to maintain the resources, state by state, that we had. So we have gotten a little bit smaller. We've had to change some of our programming, but we're not dead yet.

KEYES: Are you changing your name and the people who are running it?

Ms. LEWIS: We are ACORN, Inc. I'm still Bertha Lewis. We still have a board the board may be smaller. I'm the ACORN lady. No, we continue to fight. Poor people haven't gone away. Black folks haven't gone away. People of color haven't gone away. And as we've seen in this last drama around health care, organizations like ours are needed now more than ever.

KEYES: Let me ask you, Ms. Lewis, you said in a statement that ACORN has faced a series of well-orchestrated, relentless, well-funded right wing attacks that are unprecedented since the McCarthy era. But in the wake of the video scandal and the alleged embezzlement cover-up, I mean, how do you say that?

Ms. LEWIS: Well, first of all, we've been vindicated in one venue after another, time and time again. And I hope that when you talk about us further, you don't say that people came into our offices dressed as a pimp and a prostitute because they didn't. This was a wholly manufactured incident. We've been on attack by the right since 2001 when we first registered a million people to vote in Florida to raise the minimum wage.

Karl Rove's recent emails show how Attorney Gates started with us, with the White House sending people after us to manufacture anything they could. So, we understand that folks find us to be a threat because we're not just empowering poor people and people of color, we were actually wielding power. So this whole video episode, once again, has been shown to have been highly edited, sliced and diced tapes.

KEYES: But here's the thing, Ms. Lewis, it still it made you guys look bad.

Ms. LEWIS: Yes.

KEYES: You said you're doing some transformation. Exactly talk to me exactly what transformation you are doing. You're not changing your name. You're not...

Ms. LEWIS: Absolutely. We were already, as I said - part of what was embarrassing for us is that everyone was on high alert throughout the organization. We had been changing our fiscal controls and structures, changing our governance, changing staff. We were tightening up policies, training people better, totally making our organization ready for another 40 years. So this manufacturing of a fiction was done purposely to keep us in the news. The damage was done. And even though weve been vindicated now, time after time, vindication doesnt pay the bills.

KEYES: But you say that youre still not raising money and, you know, the people that have depended on you for a while...

Ms. LEWIS: Right.

KEYES: ...are a little bit concerned.

Ms. LEWIS: Yes. Yes.

KEYES: Just tell me very quickly, how do you continue to help them? And I'm really close on this clock here.

Ms. LEWIS: Here's what we need to do, we need to keep fighting. We need to keep talking about the principles. We need to fight every single day. ACORN is not going to go away. People need to read about us. People need to speak for us, and we still represent poor and low income folks of color in this country and we are going to fight.

KEYES: In 10 seconds, wouldnt it make more sense to change your name and restructure?

Ms. LEWIS: Well, to the right it doesnt matter what we call ourselves. They are still going to come after us no matter what we do, and so that's why we just have to stay focused, keep helping the folks that we represent.

KEYES: Bertha Lewis is the CEO of the community activist group ACORN that disbanded yesterday. She joined us from our bureau in New York.

Thanks so much Ms. Lewis.

Ms. LEWIS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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