Friday, October 23, 2009

The ACORN Standard

by Jeremy Scahill

The nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight and Reform recently revealed that the top 100 government contractors made nearly $300 billion from federal contracts in 2007 alone. Since 1995 these same contractors have been involved with 676 cases of "misconduct" and paid $26 billion in fines to settle cases stemming from fraud, waste or abuse. Fines and other penalties, it seems, are simply the stunningly small price of doing government business.

Take the case of the top three war contractors, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman. These companies have engaged in 108 instances of misconduct since 1995 and have paid fines or settlements totaling nearly $3 billion. In 2007 they won some $77 billion in federal contracts. Or consider pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, which in September paid $2.3 billion to settle a slew of criminal and civil cases, including Medicaid fraud. According to the Justice Department, this was "the largest healthcare fraud settlement" in its history. Yet Pfizer made more than $40 billion in profits last year and won $73 million in federal contracts in 2007; it continues to do robust business with the government. Not bad for a "corporate felon."

Unfortunately, neither Pfizer nor the largest US military contractors are targets of significant Congressional action. Instead it's ACORN, a community organization that trains and advocates for poor and working-class Americans. Over the past fifteen years, ACORN has received just $53 million in federal funds, much of it for low-income housing. Despite--or perhaps because of--its efforts to empower some 500,000 member families, ACORN was the subject of a sting video produced by a right-wing activist that featured a fake pimp and prostitute seeking tax advice. The group swiftly fired the handful of employees who were entrapped, but that didn't put an end to the storm. Fox News aired the video repeatedly, and right-wing astroturf operative Rick Berman set up a Rotten ACORN website. The campaign was wildly successful. In mid-September all but seventy-five House Democrats and seven senators voted with their Republican colleagues to bar the group from receiving federal funds.

ACORN, like all organizations receiving federal dollars, should be subject to Congressional scrutiny. But ACORN was clearly singled out for political reasons. Those Democrats who voted for the "defund ACORN" bill should be required to explain their reasoning to their constituents, particularly when so few of them have taken substantive actions to apply the ACORN standard to corporate criminals with real rap sheets.

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