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ACORN Head Bertha Lewis Vows Action on Employee Misconduct, But Warns Group Targeted by “Modern-Day McCarthyism”

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The anti-poverty group ACORN is coming under a firestorm of criticism after the group’s workers were caught on camera appearing to offer advice to a pimp and prostitute. The video was a major strike for conservatives, who for years have accused ACORN of voter registration fraud during presidential elections. Republicans are calling for a complete cutoff of all federal funding to the group, which helps poor people fight foreclosures, fix tax problems, and register to vote. We speak with ACORN chief executive Bertha Lewis. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The anti-poverty group ACORN is launching an independent review after the group’s workers were caught on camera appearing to encourage tax evasion and prostitution. Citing what it called the, quote, “indefensible action of a handful of our employees,” the group has said it is refusing new admissions into its service programs. ACORN helps poor people fight foreclosures, fix tax problems, and register to vote.

The announcement came as Republican congressional leaders call for a complete cutoff of federal funding to ACORN. On Monday, the Senate voted 83-to-7 to bar the group from receiving any federal funds from the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. House Minority Leader John Boehner and other top Republicans are now calling on President Obama to use his executive authority to extend the ban to all federal agencies. In a letter, they wrote, quote, “It is evident that ACORN is incapable of using federal funds in a manner that is consistent with the law.”

Last Friday, the Census Bureau dropped ACORN as one of 80,000 national unpaid “partners” helping promote the 2010 census, saying the group’s involvement might “create a negative connotation” and discourage participation in the population count.

AMY GOODMAN: While ACORN has long been a target of Republican lawmakers and Fox News, a firestorm of criticism was ignited last week following the release of a video in which employees of ACORN in Baltimore, New York and Washington were secretly recorded giving tax advice to two conservative activists dressed up as a pimp and a prostitute.

    PIMP: She knows her stuff, because she was saying that what we can do is classify this not as prostitution —-

    ACORN WORKER: Exactly.

    PIMP: —- but exclude that as a recreation?

    PROSTITUTE: No, no.

    PIMP: What was it called?

    PROSTITUTE: Performing arts.

    PIMP: Performing arts.

    ACORN WORKER: Yes, so —

    PIMP: And then we could get the right tax code.


    PIMP: So, that’s wonderful.

    ACORN WORKER: Your business is a performing artist.

    PROSTITUTE: A performing artist?

    ACORN WORKER: Which you are. OK?

    PIMP: OK.

    ACORN WORKER: So you’re not lying.

    PROSTITUTE: It’s kind of boosting my ego.

    ACORN WORKER: It’s a little play on words, but you’re a performing artist.

    PIMP: Alright.


    PIMP: OK.

    ACORN WORKER: So, stop saying “prostitute.”

AMY GOODMAN: The ACORN workers in Baltimore also appeared to offer tax advice after the two asked them how to buy a house to use as a brothel employing thirteen underage girls from El Salvador.

    ACORN WORKER: Make them go to school.

    PROSTITUTE: A bus or a van, depending on how much — how many people we have.

    ACORN WORKER: Make sure they go to school.


    PIMP: But they could still work.

    ACORN WORKER: They can still work, but they need to go to school.

    ACORN WORKER: Do not put thirteen. That’s going to look — that’s going to flag the flag.

    PIMP: Who’s going to — who’s it going to flag? Who are we going to get in trouble with?

    ACORN WORKER: Federal government.

    PIMP: Really?

    ACORN WORKER: If I put thirteen people on here, and I say — she’s only nineteen. How would I say thirteen people living off this nineteen-year-old girl? OK? Trust me.

    PIMP: So who do we got to be — who do we got to be afraid of, like, in the — you know, the federal government?

    ACORN WORKER: We’re not — you’re not going to use all of us.

    PIMP: Oh.

    ACORN WORKER: You’re going to use three of them.

    PIMP: OK.

    ACORN WORKER: Under sixteen.


    ACORN WORKER: So you’re eligible to get — you’ll be able to get child tax credit —-

    PIMP: OK.


    ACORN WORKER: —- and additional child tax credit.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The video was a major strike for conservatives, who for years have accused ACORN of voter registration fraud during presidential elections. The videos were posted by an affiliate of the website Breitbart.com and aired repeatedly by Fox News. Days later, Republican Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska introduced an amendment to block ACORN from receiving federal housing grants.

    SEN. MIKE JOHANNS: The recent news surrounding ACORN is alarming at — in a minimum. In fact, it’s outrageous.

    Last week, Miami-Dade prosecutors issued arrest warrants for eleven ACORN employees. The employees are charged with falsifying voter registration cards. A total of 1,400 voter registration cards were turned in, and 888 of those cards were found to be a fake. This means almost three-quarters of the voter cards were fraudulent cards.

    Then, damaging news surfaced regarding hidden videotapes at Baltimore, in Washington, DC ACORN offices. You won’t believe this. They feature ACORN employees offering advice on illegal activities, including tax evasion, prostitution and fraud. Today we find out that a different ACORN office, this time in Brooklyn, also offered advice on the same topics.

    I would suggest, obviously, this is a pattern of very rotten behavior. Notwithstanding the fact that this is long overdue, I applaud them for that action.

    Now, I would go so far as to say that I respect that some of my colleagues believe that the work done by ACORN in some communities might be valuable. But I would respectfully suggest that the problems riddling this organization, in office after office, cannot, should not be trivialized.

    This is an opportunity for the United States Senate to stand up and say enough is enough, just like the Census Bureau did. As Judge William — or Richard Zoller said, after holding an ACORN employee liable for election law violations — and again, I’m quoting — “Somebody has to go after ACORN,” unquote.

    Well, Mr. President, I suggest today on the floor of the United States Senate that that somebody is each and every United States senator. That somebody is each senator who now has the ability to come to the floor and say to the taxpayers back home, we will not tolerate this any longer. Until a full investigation is launched into ACORN, no taxpayer money should be used to fund its activities.

AMY GOODMAN: That amendment passed 83-to-7. Well, for more, we’re joined right now by the national CEO of ACORN, Bertha Lewis. She joins us from Washington, DC.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Bertha Lewis. Tell us what has happened to your organization, your response to this videotape.

BERTHA LEWIS: Well, thank you for having me, Amy.

Our response was swift and immediate. I terminated all employees that were on those tapes. It was unfortunate that they got duped into this trumped-up scenario, but none of them met our professional standards.

Also, let me add, not one application, not one tax return, not one shred of paper, was ever filed on behalf of these folks. We have a ten-step process. They didn’t even get past step one.

And finally, let me say, in a way, this said to us — we have 700 employees across the country. Five of them actually got duped by this. But dozens of offices that were visited, these people were thrown out, and in several offices, the police were called. So, we don’t see unedited tapes. We don’t see the whole story.

This is a continuation of the concentrated, relentless attacks on this organization by Republicans, by the right wing, when they couldn’t come up with anything that was true. And their voter registration allegations proved that they got caught in the trap, because all of those people in Florida were turned in by us. They had to make up a scenario, try to get some unsuspecting people to talk to them.

But we have taken swift action. This proves, with the throwing out of this crew in dozens of offices, that our quality control works. But you know what? We’re going to make sure that we review everything from top to bottom so that at least this kind of scenario will never happen again. We’ve got to get back to saving people’s homes and making sure people get affordable healthcare, for one.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bertha, this is Juan Gonzalez. I wanted to ask you —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- in terms of the — you say that there were many offices that turned them away and actually filed police reports.


JUAN GONZALEZ: But when you started getting these visits from these strange people, did you put out any kind of a memo to the rest of your organization: “Be on the lookout for these folks who are visiting our offices”? What was the sort of internal communications that you had that might have been able — or didn’t have — that might have been able to avoid these four or five people that you say that acted inappropriately?

BERTHA LEWIS: Well, first of all, Juan, that’s a very — you know, that’s a very good observation, because these visits were spread out throughout the summer, and they were random all over. And so, we probably could have done a better job saying, “Did you see these crazy-dressed people in your office?” I think a lot of folks took it as a joke. And we didn’t — you know, again, we have 700 employees and over sixty-some offices. So there was a little breakdown to say that maybe people ought to watch out for it. That’s why we’re doing this review, so that anything that’s out of the ordinary, we’ll now have a system to say, “Whoa, wait a minute!”

We know that the right is doing a relentless campaign against us. We have to step up our procedures to make sure that we protect ourselves, because we don’t even know what the right wing can think of next. We never would have thought that they could have thought this up, but they did.

AMY GOODMAN: How many different places did they go in ACORN? Also, by the way, how many employees do you have? How many times were they turned away? How many times were they, well, given advice, like they were here, that — captured on tape?

BERTHA LEWIS: So, from what we can determine, they visited almost two dozen offices. And in two-thirds of them — you know, now, once we began to see this, because people didn’t really think much of it, when we polled everybody, we knew office — you know, in over a dozen offices, they were summarily told to leave.

I might add that these folks really were very aggressive and refused to leave in several instances in at least three or four offices, and that’s why people said, “We’re going to call the police,” because they just were very aggressive and very pushy.

We have almost 700 employees. So when they’re able to show maybe five or six, you know, less than one percent of our employees there, I would like to know any corporation that has 700 employees, if they could come and help us figure out how we keep 700 employees absolutely perfect all the time. I don’t know. But I certainly, under my watch, will make sure that our procedures are reviewed and that we do tighten this up and our intake processes and communication, as Juan pointed out, is more effective and better.

AMY GOODMAN: Bertha Lewis, we’re going to come back to you; we just have to break. National CEO of ACORN, joining us from Washington, DC. We’ll also hear from former President Jimmy Carter and Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesperson. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about the controversy around ACORN, and we’re joined by Bertha Lewis, the national CEO of ACORN. We wanted to play for you a clip of Jimmy Carter on the issue of race. The former president recently said — speaking to NBC News, he weighed in on the recent right-wing protests against President Obama.

    JIMMY CARTER: An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African American. I live in the South, and I’ve seen the South come a long way, and I’ve seen the rest of the country that shared the South’s attitude toward minority groups at that time, particularly African Americans. That racism inclination still exists. And I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South, but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It’s an abominable circumstance and grieves me and concerns me very deeply.

AMY GOODMAN: Former President Jimmy Carter, speaking on NBC News. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs was asked about Carter’s comments at a news conference on Wednesday.

    ROBERT GIBBS: The President does not believe that — that the criticism comes based on the color of his skin. We understand that people have disagreements with some of the decisions that we’ve made and some of the extraordinary actions that had to be undertaken by both this administration and previous administrations to stabilize our financial system, to ensure viability of our domestic auto industry. I don’t think that — as I said, the President does not believe that it’s based on the color of his skin.

AMY GOODMAN: Robert Gibbs and former President Jimmy Carter. The issue of race is getting very hot these days on a number of issues, going right back to what happened with Harvard Professor Skip Gates and the summit at the White House, if you could call it that.

Bertha Lewis, you started, when this originally was raised, by saying this was a right-wing attack on ACORN.


AMY GOODMAN: Yet the video came out, and you had some of your biggest supporters in Congress actually voting against ACORN, saying you shouldn’t get funding, because they were appalled by what they saw. How do you put —-


AMY GOODMAN: —- these two together?

BERTHA LEWIS: Well, first of all, we are suffering from a modern-day type of McCarthyism. You know, have you now or have you ever been associated with ACORN? This has been repeated in the right-wing Republican echo chamber, that somehow or another we are to be discredited.

We are the largest membership-based community organization of low- and moderate-income people of color, black and brown folks, in this country. We have been around for forty years. We’ve saved thousands of homes. We’ve helped raise the wages of tens of thousands and now hundreds of thousands of people. And also, we have been able to make sure that millions of disenfranchised black and brown folks in this country actually vote and they are actually counted.

So, for us, we know that there is a race element to trying to stop us. I mean, look at what’s happened with Van Jones and Eric Holder and Judge Sotomayor. We know that we have been used as a surrogate to attack President Obama. The teabaggers have had signs with ACORN at teabag parties, and we never even were around or there.

And it’s not going to stop. We understand that. And our work is not going to stop. So, the relative ten percent of our entire funding that would come through the government, sure, we are going to fight back against this, because we know that this is an unfair attack. And it’s been going on from the Republican side and the right-wing side. However, our core work will never stop.

And we know that — being the largest organization of black and brown folks, people of color, in this country, we know that we are a target. But we meet that challenge. And if you were to hear the racist, sexist, just horrible vitriol that are visited on our offices and on the phone, in emails, threats left at our door, hate mail letters sent, you know, it is very clear that people on the right, and Republicans in particular, are very upset that ACORN is effective and that it’s been around for forty years and that we are a powerful organization.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Bertha, I’d like to ask you — there’s no doubt that there are organizations, conservative, right-wing organizations, that have targeted you, and it’s clear that even Karl Rove was directing that ACORN be targeted. But there is the question of, has the organization, knowing that it’s the target of these kinds of attacks, put in the kinds of controls to make it less possible for these folks to succeed?


JUAN GONZALEZ: For instance, the voter registration issue. There was no doubt that you, as you said, have flagged many of the false voter forms that were filed by some of your volunteers. But at the same time, you were paying people per registration, which meant that they had an incentive to create —-

BERTHA LEWIS: No. Juan, Juan, Juan, Juan -—

JUAN GONZALEZ: — as many registrations as possible.


JUAN GONZALEZ: So what about the controls —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- of the organization?

BERTHA LEWIS: Juan, number one, let us not keep repeating a lie. We never paid anyone ever by their card. We pay people by the hour. We had standards. And we fired anyone that we even suspected of falsifying a card. People got paid by the hour. Sometimes they had good days, sometimes they had bad days. But please, don’t repeat what the right wing has put out there as fact. It’s just not true.

So, let’s talk about controls. Since I took over, I’ve done an overhaul of all the top management, our financial controls, and going through now office by office. We actually were in the process of making sure that we reviewed everything.

Voter registration, for instance. We believe that the government should have universal automatic registration. ACORN or any other third-party group shouldn’t have to do voter registration for Americans to participate in their own government. But they don’t have that yet, and until they do, ’til the government stands up and does its job, we will make sure that our people, poor people, do get registered and do participate in the electoral process. But we believe that we shouldn’t even be in this business, and no one should; the government should do it.

We’ve said, on this latest issue, any time that we see some hole or a crack in our procedures, boy, we’re going to act on it very swiftly. Under my watch, we’ve already instituted new training, new reviews. We’ve suspended intake to make sure that we have a uniform way of dealing with this.

And again, in this heightened political attack dimension that we’re in, you are absolutely right, Juan. We now will make sure that we have ongoing — ongoing — training and review, because, quite frankly, in forty years we’ve never come across anything like this. These people have unlimited resources and money and backers. And, you know, this is a bit overwhelming. But we’ve been around for forty years. We’re going to be around for forty more, because we believe that poor people in this country should have power and should have a powerful organization. But you’re right. We now realize that we really do have to go several steps further, not being paranoid, but just being prudent.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And I’d like to ask you also, what about the coincidence that this video appears just around the time that emails —-


JUAN GONZALEZ: —- were released from Congress showing the direct involvement of Karl Rove in targeting ACORN?

BERTHA LEWIS: Sure, sure. I mean, look, here’s what we’ve had. We were accused of causing the financial meltdown, you know? When we were the ones warning about predatory lending. They put out, oh, ACORN’s going to get $4 billion from the stimulus money; ACORN’s going to steal the census the same way they stole the election, implying, somehow or another, that President Obama’s election was illegitimate. Look, voter registration fraud, we’ve seen now that — again, we turned in everyone. Karl Rove, in fact, did target us on that, and all of that was false.

These video, undercover videos, which, by the way, are illegal in several states, because you can’t take people without their knowledge, so we are suing this videographer, because we think he committed a crime. We’re asking for an investigation of him and Fox. But it is peculiar that these were shot during the summer. Karl Rove, all these Republican things were coming out. And all of a sudden, the night after President Obama’s speech to Congress, all of a sudden now we explode with these secret tapes and secret videos. And I don’t think it’s coincidental.

I think that the right, Republicans, in particular, understand that they are out of power. They are mad as hell at the fact that Democrats are in power. They’re mad as hell that poor people in this country are really participating. And this is their way of fighting back: lies, rumors, innuendos, smear, you know, McCarthyism, with just trying to put a chilling effect on any community group or anyone that would even stand up and say that they’re organizing poor people. So, it’s not a coincidence.

They try to blunt any forward movement, any progressive policies. And now we understand their strategy and their tactics. Their strategy, from the beginning, was to denigrate community organizing, denigrate people of color and poor people in this country. And they’ve carried that forward. We have a former community organizer as president. Stands to reason, let’s attack the largest community organization in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: Bertha Lewis, we want to thank you very much for being with us, national CEO of ACORN.

And Juan, just referring to this latest release of emails, looking at the Huffington Post, last week the House Judiciary Committee released over 5,000 pages of White House and Republican National Committee emails with transcripts of closed-door testimony by Karl Rove and the former White House counsel Harriet Miers. The documents reveal that Rove played a central role in sacking David Iglesias, the New Mexico US attorney, one of the several federal prosecutors fired in the string of politically motivated dismissals in 2006. Iglesias refused to cooperate with the White House’s political agenda of prosecuting ACORN for voter fraud.

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