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ACORN case elicits strong reactions Supporters note group's work with the poor, while others point to recent scandals

ACORN, the community action group that has come under intense scrutiny nationally for allegations of voter registration fraud and offering advice for prostitutes, had a local office here for about four years, but it has been absent from Buffalo for more than a year.

Nonetheless, the organization still elicits strong opinions from local supporters and detractors -- and the area's representatives in Congress.

The most recent controversy revolves around hidden-camera videos showing two ACORN employees advising a couple posing as a prostitute and her pimp to lie about her job and hide her earnings. The resulting national uproar prompted Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Chris Lee, R-Clarence, to join a majority of members of Congress and vote Thursday to deny any more federal funds for ACORN, (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now).

Locally, only Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, voted to continue funding the controversial group. She was one of only 75 House Democrats to defend the organization in a sign that even Democrats are beginning to view it as a potential liability.

And while ACORN has strong allies in the State Legislature and in the Working Families Party -- especially in Brooklyn -- the recent events prompted Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes to launch a criminal investigation. That, in turn, caused Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo to freeze any flow of state funds to the group pending the outcome of the Brooklyn probe.

ACORN has received about $145,000 in legislative "member items" over the past two years, according to state records compiled by the attorney general.

They were mostly secured by New York City members of the Assembly for items like seminars on home buying and foreclosures, tax preparation seminars, and assisting low- and moderate-income families in obtaining federal and state earned income tax credits.

The group's spokesman last week said he believes voices of the couple in the video were dubbed in to alter the conversation, adding that ACORN is launching its own investigation.

But the situation prompted unusual action by the House of Representatives to stem ACORN's funding. Lee called his vote a "no-brainer."

"It's the most blatant example of bad use of taxpayer dollars," he said. "I would never vote to give these guys another penny, given their track record."

Lee said he had no conceptual problem with funding groups that assist low- and moderate-income people. But the recent evidence of how they use those funds, he said, should disqualify them from taxpayer money.

"They also have a track record of voter registration fraud," Lee added. "I'm sorry, but if you use federal dollars, you had better live within the letter of the law."

In addition to voting to block funding for ACORN, Lee also co-sponsored legislation to permanently stop its federal funding. He also signed a letter to President Obama, asking him to publicly disclose and terminate all taxpayer funding of the group.

Higgins issued a statement echoing similar sentiments, pointing to the controversial videotapes surfacing from ACORN activities in Brooklyn and in Baltimore.

"The motion [Thursday] ensures that no federal funding approved within the student loan bill . . . will go to ACORN," he said. "I think that is wise, and that is why I joined with an overwhelming bipartisan majority of members of the House to block any funding to ACORN while investigation of its activities by law enforcement agencies is under way."

Slaughter did not respond to a request seeking comment.

Philip Rumore, president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said ACORN's Buffalo chapter disbanded about 18 months ago. Prior to disbanding, the group used BTF office space at the union's headquarters on Porter Avenue.

"They are one of the more powerful grass-roots organizing groups, especially in New York City," Rumore said. "They work with the poor and organize people in housing projects. I have a great opinion of them."

While aware of the problems the group has encountered in recent days, Rumore said his experience with it was positive.

"In any big organization, there will be people who do things you might not approve of," he said. "Mistakes happen."

He said he did not know why ACORN left Buffalo but speculated the group had trouble keeping its New York City-based staff here.

Aaron Bartley, local director of PUSH (People United for Sustainable Housing), said ACORN was active locally for about four years. He said the group worked hard on many community issues, but was never able to firmly establish itself in Buffalo.

ACORN has had a long association with the Working Families Party, one of three minor parties that automatically qualifies for the New York State ballot.

Its national director, Bertha Lewis, is co-chairwoman of the state party and one of its founders. Rumore was also at one time a statewide official of the party, which has deep roots in the labor movement.

The group also operates out of state Working Families headquarters in Brooklyn.

The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Monday to deny housing and community grant funding to ACORN. New York's two Democratic senators were split: Sen. Charles E. Schumer voted to eliminate funding while Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand voted to continue it.

e-mail: rmccarthy@buffnews.com

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