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Blunt takes aim at ACORN, which says its local operation won't be affected by national controversy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2009 - U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield, is among the Republicans targeting the low-income advocacy group known as ACORN, in the wake of a national flap over a video in which some ACORN workers in several cities appear to offer illegal advice to a conservative activist posing as a prostitute.

Blunt, who is running for the U.S. Senate next year, is among the co-sponsors of a bill to cut off all taxpayer funding to the group formally known as the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

Also co-sponsoring the measure: U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer, R-St. Elizabeth.

UPDATE: The U.S. House overwhelmingly passed the bill today; it now goes to the Senate.

“ACORN’s flagrant disregard for the law and the responsibilities that come with receiving taxpayer funding is reason enough to defund ACORN immediately,” Blunt said in a statement this week.  “We must stop throwing tax dollars at an organization that supports illegal activity under the guise of providing a public service.”

Blunt is among many Republicans who have been critical of ACORN for years, particularly its voter-registration drives that all sides acknowledge generally benefit Democratic candidates.

However, a local spokesman for ACORN says that most of its operations in Missouri and many other states are not financed with federal money and would feel little effects from congressional attacks to cut off government money. The bulk of the local ACORN money is private aid from its members, said spokesman Glenn Burleigh.

The federal money in question, he said, goes to ACORN's housing arm, which does not have offices in St. Louis. Burleigh noted that the errant workers in the video have been fired, and contended that GOP critics are primarily engaging in "political theater'' aimed at discrediting the group's efforts to help the poor.

On Tuesday, for example, local ACORN activists conducted the latest of several protests outside local Ameren offices aimed at contrasting the salaries of the utility's executives with its application with the Public Service Commission for an 18 percent rate hike.

Still, Blunt points to the recent decision by the U.S. Census Bureau to end its plans to use ACORN as one of the groups that would help encourage people -- especially minorities and the poor -- to participate in the national program next year to count Americans. The U.S. Senate also approved a provision this week that bars ACORN from receiving federal money in the 2010 transportation and housing spending bill.

“ACORN’s troubling pattern of corruption, waste, and abuse must stop,” Blunt said.  “In an environment of record deficits and staggering tax burdens, the taxpayer should not be funding this questionable organization.”

ACORN officials, locally and nationally, also admit that the group's image and future could be at stake, unless it successfully addresses the damage caused by the video. 

National and state ACORN officials cite a number of cities where ACORN workers did not fall for the video ruse, which involved a hidden camera. "They tried and failed with a bunch of (ACORN offices) before they found some people dumb enough for fall for this,'' Burleigh said.

In any case, there's no dispute that the video has resurrected the longstanding distrust that many conservatives and Republicans have for ACORN, which admits it has had its share of problems here and elsewhere.

In Missouri, there have been several cases in recent years where ACORN contract workers have been arrested and/or convicted for submitting fraudulent voter registrations.  

National and regional ACORN officials have emphasized that the illegal activities often were spotted and reported by its own staff. But Republican critics question whether ACORN has been involved in actual vote fraud, although no prosecutions for bogus votes have taken place.

Republicans are particularly suspicious of ACORN because its voter-registration efforts -- legal and otherwise -- are perceived as aiding Democratic candidates.

Republicans attempted last year to tie now-President Barack Obama's campaign to ACORN. And in April, the Missouri Republican Party filed an open-records request aimed at documenting whether there are links between Missouri ACORN operations and Secretary of State Robin Carnahan, a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.