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The community organizer has shut 40 percent of its centers.

Los Angeles Times

CHICAGO - Stung by the recession and a string of scandals, the ACORN community activist organization has found itself shutting down in many of the communities it once worked to empower.

Brian Kettenring, a spokesman for the national organization, said no new clients are being signed up while the group investigates how business is conducted.

The freeze comes as ACORN has been closing offices across the nation. The organization has shuttered 40 percent of its centers over the last two years, dropping from 105 offices, he said.

Dozens of branches, which helped low- and middle-income clients with housing, jobs and navigating government aid programs, have been closed, including those in Chicago, Salt Lake City, Atlanta and Omaha, Neb.

Kettenring said the closures were mostly due to the poor economy and had become more frequent in the last year. "We're seeing the same challenges the entire nonprofit sector is seeing," he said.

But former ACORN members say scandals that have recently dogged the organization - including allegations of mismanagement and voter registration fraud - are a bigger problem.

In the latest controversy, ACORN workers in several cities, including New York, Baltimore and Washington, were secretly videotaped giving advice to two conservative activists who posed as a prostitute and her pimp and said that they wanted to buy a house and run it as a brothel with teenage girls. Workers were recorded giving advice on how to evade taxes and conceal the nature of their business.

The appearance of the videos this month on a Fox News program set off a furor. The U.S. House voted this week to deny all federal funds for ACORN, while state lawmakers in California, Georgia and Minnesota called for investigations or a cutoff of state funds.

"When you have this big of a mess, it takes time to clean up and your funders drop like flies," said Madeline Talbott, a former head organizer for ACORN's operations in Illinois.

ACORN's Chicago office closed in January 2008, when Talbott - along with 365 community members, the local board and at least a dozen paid staff members - quit over concerns of mismanagement and a lack of financial transparency at the group's national headquarters.

"I feel so torn about what's happening now," said Talbott, who today is an organizer with Action Now, an advocacy group for the poor in Chicago. "I'm so relieved not to be part of the organization any more, and so sad because they are trying to clean things up."

Founded in Arkansas in 1970, ACORN advocates for higher minimum wages, easier access to affordable housing and bolstering voter registration in low-income communities.

It has been a top target for conservatives because of its liberal, grass-roots agenda. President Barack Obama worked as an attorney for the group in the early 1990s.

The organization mobilized a get-out-the-vote effort to support Obama's presidential bid last year, but it was tainted when nearly one-third of the 1.3 million new voters the group registered were rejected.

Last week, authorities in Miami announced the arrests of 11 former registration canvassers on allegations that they had submitted nearly 200 falsified forms.

Later this month, a preliminary hearing is scheduled in Nevada, where prosecutors have accused ACORN and two former officials of using an illegal incentive system to motivate people registering voters just before the 2008 presidential election.

ACORN officials blame such woes on a conservative push to force the organization out of business.

Amy Schur, ACORN's head organizer for California, acknowledged that the organization has had a tough year but said the state's 12 offices would survive. Membership is up and funding is stable, she said.

"Our organization is under attack," she said. "But we're going to come out of this just fine."

Schur said the decentralized nature of ACORN ensures that if an office in one part of the country founders, it won't necessarily affect those elsewhere.

Still, Schur said, she has taken steps to quell any public uneasiness. Schur said the organization has hired an independent auditor to review the finances of the state's programs and will require more staff training.

John Atlas, a writer who just completed a book about the history of ACORN, said the scandals had brought "overwhelming bad publicity" to the organization.

"The brand is tainted," Atlas said. "This is going to make it harder for them to recruit new members, to get foundation funding and get funding for voter registration."

But Atlas said ACORN had weathered a lot in its history, and he predicted that the organization would emerge from the scandals smaller but intact.

Latrell Smith, a former ACORN worker in Chicago and now an organizer for Action Now, said the scandals had been sobering and infuriating

In his current job, he is more cautious when talking with families that approach him for help.

"I joined ACORN because I wanted to make a difference in my community," Smith said. "Before the videos came out, I could never have imagined something like that happening in ACORN."

Now, he said, "I wonder if we could be next."

Key players

Key players at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)

Bertha Lewis, ACORN CEO and chief organizer since May 2008; previous positions at ACORN: executive director for New York state, ACORN (1997 to 2008); chief organizer for Brooklyn, ACORN (1996 to 1997); director, ACORN Brooklyn Housing Development Unit (1995 to 1996). Lewis is a native of Philadelphia and went to New York as a theater producer and became a housing and education activist.

Maude Hurd, ACORN president, began working with ACORN in 1982 and was first elected national president of ACORN in 1990. The position of president is elected and unpaid. She lives in Dorchester, Mass., where she works as a substance-abuse prevention specialist at Greater Boston Center for Healthy Communities, a program of The Medical Foundation.

Wade Rathke, founder and former chief organizer; formed ACORN in Arkansas in 1970; stepped down as ACORN's chief organizer on June 2, 2008, after revelations that his brother, Dale, had embezzled nearly $1 million from ACORN and affiliated charitable organizations in 1999 and 2000. Rathke remained chief organizer for Acorn International L.L.C, which has since changed its name to Community Organizations International. In the late 1960s he attended Williams College in Massachusetts but left to work with the draft-resistance group Students for a Democratic Society. Later he worked as an organizer for George Wiley's National Welfare Reform Organization. He left that group in 1970 and formed anorganization called Arkansas Community Organizations for Reform Now.