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The anti-poverty group ACORN is fighting to survive. That's after the much publicized undercover video scandal. ACORN's government funding is threatened and so is the money it receives from foundations and other donors. ACORN is fighting back, but that too is draining its resources, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER: The plea from ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis was simple: We need your help to survive. That was the request this week in a fundraising letter to donors. Lewis said in an interview that she thinks her 40-year-old organization will survive, but she's worried that fighting the charges that ACORN is a corrupt organization will divert resources from its other programs, saying such as helping low and moderate income people fight home foreclosures.
Ms. BERTHA LEWIS (CEO, ACORN): So we need different funding, some extra funding in order to fight back because, you know, they try to bury you with paper and answering one inquiry after another.
FESSLER: And the inquiries are mounting. Lawmakers have asked the Government Accountability Office, the Justice Department, the Internal Revenue Service — just to name a few — to investigate ACORN. That's after undercover videos showed some of its workers advising a couple posing as a pimp and a prostitute on how to evade the law. ACORN has fired the workers and says it's cleaning up its act, but support continues to erode. Several major funders told NPR that they've ended or are reassessing their ties with ACORN and its affiliates.
The Ford Foundation gave almost $2 million in recent years, but says it has suspended ACORN funding because of concerns about inadequate financial controls. The Marguerite Casey Foundation gave ACORN over $4 million, but spokeswoman Kathleen Baca says the grants are not being renewed, even though the foundation thinks ACORN has done some outstanding work for the poor.
Ms. KATHLEEN BACA (Spokeswoman, The Marguerite Casey Foundation): Part of our funding criteria is fiscal responsibility and a strong management structure. At this time, there are too many questions surrounding the management of ACORN and its finances for us to fund them.
FESSLER: The Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Bank of America and JPMorgan also say they've ceased making grants to ACORN and its affiliates. Although at least one foundation is bucking the tide. The California Endowment is on the verge of approving a new half million dollar grant to ACORN to help low-income families access health care and other benefits. Robert Phillips is the endowment's director of health and human services.
Mr. ROBERT PHILLIPS (Director, California Endowment): We feel pretty solid in our relationship with them for one really specific reason, which is the standards that we've kind of held all of our grantees to, ACORN has met.
FESSLER: But it's unclear whether that will be enough. Congress is also trying to stop millions of dollars in federal grants from going to ACORN and its affiliates, although that effort has run into its own set of problems. The Senate has approved a measure that specifically targets ACORN, which the Congressional Research Service says could violate the Constitution's prohibition against bills of attainder. And the House has approved a broader ban, one that could have an unintended effect: it could block funding for many groups other than ACORN.
Ms. DANIELLE BRIAN (Executive Director, Project on Government Oversight): This applies to practically everybody.
FESSLER: Danielle Brian is executive director of the watchdog group Project on Government Oversight. The House bill would prohibit funds for any organization that, quote, "has filed a fraudulent form with any federal or state regulatory agency," which she says could affect just about every major defense contractor in the nation.
Ms. BRIAN: In some weird way, we think this could be fabulous because they're all suddenly going to be swept into serious accountability, which is what we've been trying for years to accomplish.
FESSLER: She thinks many of these contractors have done a lot worse than ACORN. Still, it's ACORN that's on the chopping block right now. And the group hopes an independent review of its operations — to be completed this month — will be the first step in winning back some crucial support.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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