When ACORN came to Idaho in 2007, its first act was bringing a traffic engineer to Latah and Nez Perce streets and getting the city to turn the intersection into a four-way stop. ACORN, as the nonprofit Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now is widely known, distributed a flier in November 2007 encouraging Bench neighbors for helping "make a difference." The group assisted tenants in Garden City with water quality and other utility complaints and connected people in default or foreclosure with HUD certified loan counselors.
"We started the free tax preparation to help people get all the money they worked hard for and deserve. We helped families get food stamp assistance, did E-File, qualified them for the low-income heating and energy assistance program," said Aimee Olin, Northwest regional director for ACORN. "It is hard in Boise to enroll in these programs. People didn't know where to go, a lot of people didn't realize they're eligible, applications were not in their languages or were long and complicated."
Olin recruited a staff of two in Boise and later added a certified tax preparer. Now running Oregon ACORN in her 10th year with the organization, Olin said the Idaho effort never had the funding to do voter registration. After growing a small membership, the operation closed unexpectedly in the fall of 2008, she said, "because we were unable to fundraise enough local money."
Over the course of 39 years, ACORN has led immigrant rights marches, fought predatory lending, built and renovated housing for the working poor, protested teacher layoffs, stopped bulldozing of flooded homes in New Orleans and grown its membership ranks to half a million nationwide. It has not spent much time lobbying Congress, and in recent months, Congress has taken on the group with a vengeance.
After a hidden camera expose by two young conservative activists receiving tax shelter advice while posing as pimp and prostitute, and the apparent embezzlement of $1 million to $5 million by the brother of ACORN's former president triggered outrage across the country, the U.S. Census Bureau, Internal Revenue Service, U.S. Congress and Bank of America severed ties with the group. The Treasury and Justice departments are calling for investigations.
On Sept. 24, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele called for investigations into ACORN's ties to Democrats.
"ACORN should never be allowed near another voter registration effort again," he said. Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko followed suit, saying, "We look forward to the investigation identifying any improper activities taken by ACORN in Boise."
Idaho's entire Congressional delegation also got on board the ACORN-bashing. Thirty-seven House Democrats sent a letter to an appropriations subcommittee chairman Oct. 5 declaring their support for language prohibiting ACORN from eligibility for any federal funds in FY 2010. Rep. Walt Minnick was the first signature on the list.
"We are deeply troubled by the video obtained of ACORN employees offering to falsify tax documents and help obtain a mortgage for individuals purporting to be engaged in prostitution. Such actions should disqualify ACORN from receiving taxpayer-funded HUD grants," the letter read.
It turns out this campaign against ACORN began as early as 2002. In 2006, nine U.S. attorneys were fired, allegedly under orders from Karl Rove. David Iglesias, author of the new book, In Justice, claims that his pink slip came after resisting pressure to pursue bogus voter registration cases involving ACORN.
"Republicans had wanted splashy headlines trumpeting voter fraud indictments," Iglesias writes. Two years after setting up a task force and hotline, he had not found any criminal evidence. "I felt that I had dispelled the phantoms of voter fraud in New Mexico. But some people had wanted a different result, whether or not it was warranted by the facts," he said.
The witch hunt may go back even further.
ACORN spokesman Kevin Whelan said that starting in the 1990s, industry, including food and beverage interests began to attack living wage initiatives, led by lobbyist Rick Berman who has also marketed trans fats, mercury, high fructose corn syrup and tanning.
Boise State social work professor Will Rainford received ACORN training in grad school and he hopes a better ACORN will emerge from the recent crisis.
"I'm appalled about the behavior of individuals within ACORN and appalled about what we're finding out about the CEO and his brother, but they weren't trying to bilk the government out of millions of dollars. The wrongdoing was isolated behavior. There is no evidence anyone who registered as Mickey Mouse ever voted in any election. It is historically a wonderful organization in its concept," Rainford said. "I had no affiliation with them in Idaho but I would not have any shame about being affiliated with them."
One former Boise organizer, however, is unwilling to speak on the record. "I haven't worked for ACORN for about a year. I'm not comfortable being the face of Idaho ACORN," she wrote, via e-mail. Nakita Santiago, the other organizer, said, "maybe it's the 'reform' part that scares people. But reform is what this country needs! When people feel powerless in their own communities, something has to change!" She wrote about the group's work in Garden City with contaminated water in mobile home parks and the resistance they faced from City Hall.
According to a woman who declined to give her name when answering the phone at Austin Management on Vista, people have continued to stop by looking for help with their tax preparation ever since ACORN closed its office there late last year.
"I'm not surprised that people still came to our office, because there's absolutely a need," Olin said. "Do they want these people not to enroll in food stamps, or to lose their homes? Americans should be outraged, even if they're not in that situation. If we can stabilize the housing market, that is going to help our economy."
"And it's a humanitarian issue," Olin continued. "Do we want to see more homeless people? Do we want to see more people die from not getting essential care? The right-wing media attacks can attempt to damage ACORN but they will never be able to stop the social justice movement. Not until there is no more need for it. In my opinion, it's a witch hunt. I think it exemplifies the success of our work. Organizing people threatens the powers that be."