ACORN's Maryland chapter is shuttered

Group is undone in national scandal sparked by videos showing illegal activity

March 16, 2010|By Brent Jones |

A former leader of Maryland's ACORN chapter said Monday the group will no longer operate in the state, doomed by an embarrassing national scandal six months ago from which the organization never recovered.

Sonja Merchant-Jones, former co-chairwoman of the state chapter of ACORN and a board member since 1999, said there are no plans in Maryland to rebrand under a different name, a move undertaken Monday by several ACORN affiliates across the country.

Maryland ACORN ceased operations late last year, Merchant-Jones said, and all the offices in the state have closed. The group has not held a board meeting in Maryland since November, she added.

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now came under scrutiny in September, when videos recorded in Baltimore showed workers counseling two conservative activists pretending to be a pimp and prostitute. Two staff members of the Baltimore office were fired because of the video, which was broadcast on major networks throughout the country and showed the employees giving tax-evading tips to the man and a scantily dressed female partner.

The incident effectively shut down local and state offices, Merchant-Jones said, and the branches were forced to cease operations after dues-paying members fled.

Congress reacted to the video by stripping ACORN's federal funding. Last week a federal judge upheld a ruling that a law blacklisting ACORN and groups allied with it was unconstitutional, but observers doubt ACORN will recoup any money.

With its federal dollars gone, ACORN's national budget went from $24 million last year to $6 million this year.

"The ACORN brand is probably ruined for life, and the only way they can operate is under a different name," Merchant-Jones said.

The Maryland chapter became active in 1999 amid a national push to expand. At its peak in 2006, the state chapter claimed about 6,000 members, with several thousand living in Baltimore. ACORN operated on an $850,000 budget and hosted a gala every year to raise money.

Although the chapter was known for its outrageous antics - dumping a beat-up sofa on the steps of City Hall to highlight Baltimore's trash problem in low-income neighborhoods, parading an employee around in a rat costume to showcase rodent infestation in the city - defenders say the group's housing program has assisted hundreds of residents.

ACORN, through the years, has also pressed city leaders on urban issues and given a loud voice to people who had never been involved in politics, advocates say.

Last year, the group mobilized a public housing complex west of downtown where residents were threatened with eviction over enormous water bills.

The residents' bills were dropped after ACORN arranged meetings with city officials and the complex's management company. ACORN also has rallied against foreclosures, blocking auctions on the courthouse steps and breaking into a padlocked home.

ACORN was most known for its national voter registration drive, although critics have questioned the group's techniques.

Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, director of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said ACORN's departure would leave a void in the state's advocacy for the poor, adding that its absence would be acutely felt as the state participates in data collection for the U.S. census.

"They've done extremely well in reaching out to certain members of our community, the homeless, drug addicts … communities that are ignored," said Cheatham, adding that he has worked with ACORN on voter registration efforts. "We were sad that they had the problems they had. The NAACP and other community groups are going to have to step up even more."

Merchant-Jones said the group was torn apart by infighting after the September incident. The nonprofit relied mostly on volunteers and low-paid employees to handle its in-office services, which included tax preparation and mortgage counseling. The Maryland headquarters on West 25th Street in lower Charles Village was where the secret recording was made.

ACORN almost lost that property in 2006, when a group that bought liens on the building because of unpaid city property taxes and water bills sued for foreclosure. ACORN also lost a $7,000 court judgment to a landlord who rented space to the group in Hyattsville. Critics say these incidents were indicative of widespread disorganization.

Some former employees agreed. Staffers have longed complained about the organization, saying ACORN fails to pay in a timely manner, if at all.

Dave Schwartz, state director for the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, said he was "glad … the taxpayers will no longer be subsidizing the organization."

"When you run a fraudulent operation, eventually you make mistakes and you get sniffed out for it," Schwartz said. "I think their mission is a worthy one. Obviously, we want to help the poor in any way we can. But their tactics and the use of taxpayer dollars, it's not acceptable."

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, a Cecil and Harford County Republican and minority whip, said she was "surprised they've lasted this long."

"They have no credibility left. They can't help but know that … ," Jacobs said. "It's an election year. No Democrat is going to want to go near them. They're just bad news. They've been killed, politically."

The organization's national Web site was disbanded by Monday morning. Several chapters in other states adopted new names, with some claiming no affiliation with ACORN; California ACORN, for example, is now Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and New York ACORN has become New York Communities for Change.

"I don't believe the ACORN brand will ever be the same, nor should it be," Merchant-Jones said. "If you're in it to serve the need of working families and if you're not going to do it right, you don't need to do it at all."

Sun reporters Nicole Fuller and Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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