It has been a bad couple of years for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. The controversial community group has been under tremendous legal pressure since the 2008 presidential campaign revealed fraudulent voter registration efforts by representatives of the group, sparking criminal investigations in more than a dozen states. As ACORN’s relationship to then presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama became public, even more scrutiny was trained on the organization. And last year’s sting of ACORN offices by undercover investigative reporters James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles exposed the group to national ridicule.
Now, an ongoing lawsuit and possible criminal investigations on the local and federal levels in New York may have convinced ACORN’s chief organizer, Bertha Lewis, to step down from her position as founding co-chair of the group’s political arm, the Working Families Party.
A little noticed lawsuit, filed in Staten Island Supreme Court by former New York City Deputy Mayor Randy Mastro on behalf of five voters in last year’s New York City Council elections, has drawn interest from both the Staten Island District Attorney and the United States Attorney for New York.
The suit alleges that the Working Families Party used its in-house campaign management and services firm to provide discount services to a successful Democratic City Council candidate, thereby giving her an unfair advantage over her opponents. The discounted services could qualify as illegal in-kind contributions, running afoul of federal and state election laws.
The firm, Data and Field Services, was the subject of a three part investigative report by City Hall News, a local political newspaper. City Hall’s report revealed a highly intertwined and complex relationship between ACORN affiliated organizations, including the Working Families Party and Data and Field Services. The report revealed that among other potentially nefarious connections, the two organizations share employees, office space, and client lists. This close coordination between the political party, a non-profit group, and the for-profit management firm raises serious questions about the use of funds by both organizations and the candidates they support and endorse.
City Hall’s report formed the basis for the allegations brought in Mastro’s lawsuit. But the trial has uncovered more potential legal problems for the Working Families Party, problems that may be leading right up to ACORN Chief Lewis.
Last month, on the first day of testimony in the trial, the former campaign treasurer for newly elected City Council Member Debi Rose indicated under direct questioning that affidavits he signed in connection with a New York State Campaign Finance Board inquiry into the relationship between the Working Families Party and Data and Field Services may not have been his own. “[The affidavit] was part of the documents the campaign gave me to sign,” the treasurer testified, distancing himself from the sworn statements the document contains. The following day, after admonishing the treasurer not to answer any further questions until conferring with an attorney, the judge in the case postponed the trial until later this month.
Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan has been quoted saying, “[there is] a very strong possibility of a perjury case here,” in reaction to the testimony. The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York is also interested in the relationship between the Working Families Party and Data and Field Services. Subpoenas were issued in December to the party seeking documents in relation to work performed by Data and Field Services on the campaigns of several party endorsed candidates, including New York City’s second highest elected official, Democratic Public Advocate Bill DiBlasio.
The Working Families Party began in New York but has since spread to Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon, and South Carolina. It has been most active in urban areas where Democrats traditionally run strongest, serving to pull Democratic candidates to the left. However, the party has of late been expanding its reach within New York State endorsing and helping elect Rep. Bill Owens in the recent special election in the upstate 23rd congressional district, far from the party’s base of power in New York City.
ACORN, the Working Families Party, and Data and Field Services work hand-in-glove in New York politics, with the party endorsing and offering its ballot line to ACORN backed candidates, and Data and Field Services providing the manpower to make the endorsement worthwhile. Once elected, ACORN backed officials see to it that the organizations lifeline of state and federal money keeps pumping.
But the party may have pushed too far in last year’s citywide elections in New York. The loss of Lewis could prove to be a critical blow to not only the Working Families Party, but to the Democratic candidates who normally rely on its endorsement to win in New York’s fusion ticket system. And with Republicans poised to make gains in the upcoming midterm elections, Democrats in New York are going need all the help they can get.