A dark cloud, years in the making, has fallen over ACORN. This left-leaning syndicate of labor unions and political agitators is fighting efforts to shine light on its structure, finances and political activities. Public outrage has reached fever pitch, and last week both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted in overwhelming bipartisan majorities to cut ACORN’s funding altogether.
ACORN officials want you to think they are the victims of a vast right-wing conspiracy or, at least, the innocent target of two college-aged pranksters armed with a chinchilla coat, a halter top and a secret video camera. But suspicion about ACORN didn’t start when its representatives began offering advice about the illegal smuggling of underage Salvadoran prostitutes.
Rather, allegations of ACORN’s systematic fraud have been piling up. From concealing a million-dollar embezzlement by a top ACORN official, to voter registration fraud and the illegal use of taxpayer dollars, the problems with ACORN have been growing deeper and the calls for Congress to investigate, louder.
This past weekend, President Barack Obama — himself a former counsel for ACORN — called for an investigation, and the inspector general for the Department of Justice is scratching the surface of ACORN’s funding. ACORN has also announced an internal investigation and has procured the services of former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger to lead the effort. Most of these developments, however, run the risk of forestalling a truly bipartisan congressional inquiry.
Over the past year, my staff has amassed a substantial body of evidence detailing ACORN’s misdeeds. Senior congressional investigators met with key ACORN whistle blowers and poured over thousands of pages of internal ACORN documents. In July, staff members of the House Oversight Committee produced a comprehensive report titled “Is ACORN Intentionally Structured as a Criminal Enterprise?” that details a purposefully complex network of blurred administrative structures and shoddy financial controls.
Until now, however, every attempt at ensuring transparency has been labeled by ACORN’s political allies as an orchestrated hatchet job led by partisan extremists. Even today, some congressional Democrats are trying to stave off a public hearing by requesting a study by the Congressional Research Service — a move tantamount to the Central Intelligence Agency’s using Google to prepare a brief for the president about uranium enrichment in Iran.
Stalling tactics, however, will only serve to further reduce the confidence American taxpayers have in the honest oversight of their government.
If ACORN has engaged in unlawful activities, then the American people deserve to hear about it. If ACORN aids and abets money laundering, illegal immigration, fraudulent voter registration and other criminal misdeeds, then the time has come for ACORN to answer for it.
This past week, I appeared on Fox News Sunday with ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis and I asked her point blank to appear before the Congress and answer questions about the way ACORN manages federal dollars it receives and to address the lack of firewalls between its charitable activities and its activities on behalf of Democratic candidates. Ms. Lewis would not give a direct answer to my question. Naturally, Bertha Lewis is suspicious of congressional oversight, and it’s worth noting that ACORN has operated for 40 years without any serious transparency. Ms. Lewis’ suspicions notwithstanding, the American people are due an accounting of $53 million in tax dollars that have gone to fund ACORN over the years.
Congressional investigations have a long and complicated history. At times, the power of Congress to issue subpoenas and examine witnesses has been used to mete out political retribution. Two realities, however, inform our pursuit of the truth about ACORN. First, the Constitution does not assign to Congress the powers of indictment, prosecution and conviction. The Founding Fathers rightly reserved that responsibility to the courts, justices and citizen juries. Already, more than 70 ACORN employees have been convicted of criminal conduct. Two weeks ago, the state attorney of Miami-Dade County issued arrest warrants for 11 more ACORN workers. Slowly but surely, the criminal case against ACORN is building.
The second reality is that Congress has reached a point of bipartisan opposition to ACORN’s receipt of additional tax dollars. Unlike some previous investigations, we now have the chance to do something that all members of Congress — Republicans and Democrats — should be concerned about: making sure that tax dollars are not improperly or illegally spent.
Issa, a Republican, represents the 49th District Congressional District, which includes Oceanside, Vista, Fallbrook, a portion of San Diego and a portion of Riverside County. He is the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.