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"Rotten" ACORN Ad Funded by Anti-Minimum Wage Group

Click to see full ad.The New York Times ran a full page advertisement today in the front section of the paper featuring an attack on ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, whose voter registration practices have come under fire this election season. Directing readers to the Web site, the ad accuses ACORN of a list of abuses that suggest hypocrisy on some of the group’s signature issues: intimidating and firing its own employees if they try to unionize, misappropriating millions of dollars from taxpayer-funded government grants and advocating minimum wage hikes while paying its own employees less than minimum wage.

The ad does not indicate who or what organization paid for it, but a click to the Rotten Acorn Web site reveals the source—the Employment Policies Institute.

The Institute, not to be confused with the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank, is connected with Rick Berman, a Washington lobbyist who for several years has been fighting ACORN’s efforts to increase the minimum wage at the state and federal levels. The nonprofit Employment Policies Institute styles itself as a research organization, but recent IRS filings show a combined $1.4 million in payments from the nonprofit to Berman and Company, Berman’s lobbying firm, in 2005 and 2006.

The Institute, which reported spending $4.5 million during those two years, has produced numerous reports arguing that boosting the minimum wage hurts teen workers and frustrates job creation. Other recent studies assert that increasing the minimum wage would not reduce poverty rates and would benefit two-income families that aren’t actually poor.

Berman could not be reached for comment. Among clients listed on his firm’s web site are the American Beverage Institute, a trade group of bars and restaurants, and the Center for Union Facts, which opposes “check card” organizing drives by labor.  A USA Today profile compared Berman to a hard-boiled lobbyist lampooned in the movie “Thank You for Smoking,” and the news show “60 Minutes” profiled Berman under the title “Dr. Evil.”

Tim Miller, spokesman for the Employment Policies Institute, said his group timed the ad to take advantage of the flurry of negative publicity about ACORN thanks to attacks from GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, running mate Sarah Palin and the Republican National Committee.

“While that is important, we wanted to highlight some of their other misdeeds,” Miller said.
“The fact is, on Nov. 5, a lot of the coverage on ACORN is going to go away, but they are going to continue the same corrupt and fraudulent practices.”

With less than a week before the election, the appearance of the Times ad is curious for the people at ACORN, who have battled Berman and his clients over minimum wage ballot initiatives in Florida, Missouri, Colorado, Ohio and Arizona, but not over presidential politics. “What we’ve been told is he’s a Republican Party operative above all else,” said Steve Kest, executive director of ACORN. “He must have been recruited into this effort. Somebody is paying them to run this ad.”

Miller said his Institute was not trying to influence the presidential election, but simply point to what he calls ACORN’s continuing misdeeds.

ACORN has had a rough few weeks. Earlier this month the head of the group’s Project Vote, Michael Slater, admitted that 400,000 of its new registered voters were rejected by elections officials as duplicates or fraudulent. Some of the criticism focused on the brother of ACORN’s founder, who was revealed this summer to have embezzled $1 million from the group eight years ago.

Kest said accusations of hypocrisy in the ad were untrue.

“At one point there were workers at one of our offices who wanted to form a union, and we invited all of our workers in and pledged complete neutrality,” he said in response to the union busting charge. “They decided not to the pursue [the union], so nothing came of it.”

Kest said ACORN has never paid its workers less than a minimum wage or sued to be exempt from minimum wage laws. “In the mid 80s, we were involved in some litigation with the state of California around how to count overtime, but none of that was about the minimum wage. We even eventually withdrew that lawsuit.”

ACORN has already answered the charges of registration fraud and increased quality control, he said. Organizers make up to three attempts to contact and verify the identity of people on a registration form. Problematic forms – like those with Mickey Mouse or other ficticious names, are separated out, he said, but the law in most states requires ACORN to turn them over. “It’s not our job to determine if someone is a valid person or not,” Kest said.

“When the charges first came out I think people were asking questions. But the facts have come out. There have been a whole slew of editorials that have put all this in perspective,” Kest said. “What I really think is going on is (the GOP is) trying to use this as a smokescreen to try to distract from the voter suppression efforts they have been engaged in.”

Steph Jespersen, director of advertising acceptability for the Times, said the paper does not run “blind” ads – those without an identifiable sponsor. If an ad only lists a web site, as did the attack on ACORN, “we insist the (sponsor’s) address be on the web site,” Jespersen said.

(Disclosure: The Sandler Foundation, the primary funder of ProPublica, has given money to ACORN, according to tax filings. The Foundation lists a $300,000 contribution in fiscal 2007 to expand ACORN field operations. Kest estimated that ACORN’s budget last year was $20 million.)

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