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January 7, 2009

Victory for our summer interns!

Posted: 01:05 PM ET
CNN INTERNS

CNN INTERNS

Well they aren't summer interns anymore. Actually most of them are probably working real jobs, but their work two years ago for CNN's investigative team finally has brought the entire congressional earmark process into the open.

In the summer of 2007, we assembled a team of interns to ask every senator and every member of Congress to disclose their pork barrel requests, known as earmarks. The requests in the past have been done in complete secrecy. Most of us found out about pork barrel spending only after it was included in budget bills.

We upset a lot of politicians with that survey. Most members of Congress and the Senate never even bothered to call us back. But a few did and thought it was a good idea for us to post their requests online.

Now they all will have to do it....because the two people in charge of doling out the money, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Rep. David Obey (D-Wisconsin) issued new rules today (you can read them below). Basically, if you want the people’s money, you’d better tell the people why, online and in advance.

I can't help but think our summer interns have brought a little summer sunlight to the dark world of congressional spending.

For more info see this release.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Politics • Special Investigations Unit


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November 21, 2008

Teaching old school politics to freshmen

Posted: 05:01 PM ET
And it doesn't get more old school than this. I was standing outside the democratic national headquarters Wednesday morning, watching a parade of lobbyists heading in to 'meet and greet' the newly elected freshman democrats. But this wasn't about just meeting and greeting. The purpose was to introduce the new legislators on Capitol Hill to the old money from K street.congress-invite0013

The lobbying crowd was being encouraged to come and "retire the debt" of the new democrats who had spent a fortune campaigning their way to this day. sponsored by old boy veterans, John Dingell of Michigan and Nick Rahall of West Virginia, it was a back slapping, check writing affair. Dingell and Rahall actually advised in their invitation just how friendly the lobbyists and political action committees should be: anywhere from $2500 to be a friend, up to $20,000 to be a "host".

Somebody slipped us the rather blatant cash plea invitation and you can see for yourself the "dance card" that helps lobbyist keep track of the money they were passing out.

What really was surprising is just how open and honest the pols and the lobbyists are about this. When asked if this just the same old pay to play politics in action, Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia asked if I had a better idea. And Steny Hoyer, the house majority leader for the democrats said, of course the lobbyists are getting access, but then said its the same kind of access anyone could get if they helped on campaigns or turned out at town hall meetings.

So who did get access? Ric Fenton is a lobbyist for the mining industry. He told me he is really an educator serving a vital function on the hill. Then he admitted his vital function on this chilly morning in DC was to hand out cold, hard cash.

"How much are you giving today?" I asked.

"I think we're giving $5,000."

"To one or a bunch?"

"To several. We go through that fairly thoroughly."

I guess when you are an educator on Capitol Hill, like Mr. Fenton, you really need to make sure the students learn their lesson. $5,000 a pop sounds like a good start for the study of old boy politics 101.

congress-invite0023

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Politics • Special Investigations Unit


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November 14, 2008

ACORN board fires members

Posted: 02:19 PM ET

The community organizing group ACORN, investigated this year for filing fraudulent voter registration forms, has fired two board members it had appointed to look into the possible embezzlement of nearly $1 million by the brother of one of the group's founders.

An internal document from the ACORN executive board, obtained by CNN, shows that members Karen Inman and Marcel Reid were "removed from any office or committee position you may have held." A separate document says that "the memberships of Karen Inman and Marcel Reid in ACORN is canceled, and they are removed from the Association Board." The documents, dated November 11, are signed by Maude Hurd, president of the ACORN Association Board. Hurd was not immediately available for comment Thursday afternoon, an ACORN receptionist said.

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But ACORN member Gloria Brown, speaking from the group's main office in New Orleans, Louisiana, said in response to a CNN request for comment that Inman and Reid were removed because "they've been saying from the beginning things that were not true."

Brown said she was the only person available from ACORN to speak with CNN at the moment. Inman, who is from Minnesota, contends that only her state branch can remove her and it has not done so. She said the ACORN board's actions will lead to a criminal investigation.

"Why would you want us not to clean up things?" she asked. "Why would you not want to do your own investigation instead of bringing in the sheriff?"

Asked if she thinks the sheriff is coming, she answered: "I think the sheriff's coming."

The possible embezzlement by Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke, allegedly occurred about eight years ago. But the ACORN board did not find out about it until this year. In July, the ACORN board selected an interim management committee to look at the possible embezzlement and its concealment. Inman and Reid were two of the members appointed to the committee.

When an ACORN affiliate that acts as the group's accounting firm denied the committee members access to the books, Inman said, she, Reid and several others filed a lawsuit to have the court order ACORN to preserve the books and give them access to all accounting matters. That suit became known as the ACORN 8 because, according to Inman, eight ACORN people signed onto it. She now says there are 25 members demanding the accountability.

ACORN said the interim management committee essentially had no authority
and countersued.

"They didn't have authority from that committee," ACORN member Brown said Thursday. "They filed this lawsuit that basically was not on behalf of the
board at all."

According to the documents obtained by CNN, the ACORN executive board met Sunday and decided to remove Inman and Reid and any other members participating in the lawsuit. The problems at ACORN already have cost it the financial support of one of its major donors. The Catholic Campaign for Human Development froze contributions to ACORN in June amid the embezzlement allegations. This week, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Baltimore, Maryland, the campaign's chairman said it was cutting all ties with the group.

"We simply had too many questions and concerns to permit further CCHD funding of ACORN groups," Roger Morin, the auxiliary bishop of New Orleans, told his colleagues in an earlier letter to the conference.

The CCHD has donated more than $7.3 million to ACORN-related projects over the past decade, including $40,000 to an ACORN chapter in Las Vegas, Nevada, that was raided before the election in an investigation into fraudulent voter registration forms. Morin said a church review completed earlier this month found ACORN no longer meets standards for further funding.

In a statement to CNN, ACORN Executive Director Steven Kest said his group is grateful for the church's funding.

"We look forward to continuing discussions with CCHD officials and the bishops in the months ahead in hopes that we can continue working together on projects which have been so important to so many in low-income neighborhoods across the country," Kest said.

But Ralph McCloud, the Human Development campaign's director, said the church has "severed ties" with ACORN and there are no plans for further discussion.

By Kathleen Johnston

– CNN's Arthur Brice and Marcus Hooper contributed to this report.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Special Investigations Unit


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November 12, 2008

Catholic Church drops ACORN funding

Posted: 10:25 PM ET

ACORN, the community organizing group rocked by voter registration fraud allegations, is being rocked again by the loss of a major donor.

catholic letter to acorn

catholic letter to acorn

And the group's sloppy voter registration drive in the 2008 presidential election campaign is at least partly to blame.

Citing voter fraud allegations along with embezzlement and accounting issues at ACORN (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), the Catholic church announced it will sever all ties with the group. The announcement to stop all funding to various ACORN projects came at the U.S. conference of Catholic bishops in Baltimore.

Bishop Roger Morin, who chairs the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) told his fellow bishops, "We simply had too many questions and concerns to permit further CCHD funding of ACORN groups."

Bishop Morin froze all Catholic funds to ACORN in June when ACORN revealed the brother of the group's founders had embezzled nearly a million dollars from the group. The embezzlement took place years ago, but was only recently revealed to ACORN board members and donor groups.

In a letter to All Bishops, Bishop Morin said the Catholic Church would conduct its own review. That review was completed earlier this month and the church apparently was not convinced ACORN meets the standards of further funding.

"No funds were given this year, none for next year and now the stance at present is there will be no funding relationship with ACORN groups in the future," said Bishop Morin.

The Catholic Church has a long history of giving grant money to ACORN and its affiliates. Over the past decade, the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has given more than $7.3 million dollars to ACORN related projects.

The CCHD gave more than a million dollars to ACORN last year, including $40-thousand dollars to the ACORN chapter in Las Vegas. That chapter was recently raided by local authorities in a voter registration fraud investigation. Among other questionable registrations, the ACORN chapter submitted registrations for members of the Dallas Cowboys football team.

In a statement to CNN, ACORN's executive Director Steven Kest said his group is grateful the church's funding in the past and "We look forward to continuing discussions with CCHD officials and the bishops in the months ahead in hopes that we can continue working together on projects, which have been so important to so many in low income neighborhoods across the country."

An official with the Catholic Campaign for Human Development says there are no plans to continue any discussion with ACORN at this time. Ralph McCloud, the director of CCHD says the Catholic Church has "severed ties" with ACORN.

Marcus Hooper contributed to this report

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Special Investigations Unit


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November 4, 2008

Covering ACORN With A Hatchet

Posted: 03:05 PM ET

So today I got a letter sent to all Catholic Bishops in the U.S. announcing that due to serious problems at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the Catholic Campaign for Human Development is suspending all funds to ACORN.

It’s significant because the Catholic Church in the U.S. has given $7.3 million dollars to ACORN projects over the past decade. Just last year, U.S. Catholics gave more than a million dollars to ACORN. And it appears some of that money filtered down to the ACORN office in Las Vegas that made headlines trying to register the Dallas Cowboys football team to vote in Nevada.

The problem for the Catholics is two fold:

The Catholic Church is concerned about its own tax exempt status being involved in a group that is now so deeply involved in political support of one candidate.
The Catholic Church says questions have arisen about ACORNS financial management, fiscal transparency and accountability.

So, of course, I immediately called ACORN’s spokesperson Scott Levenson, one of many public relations specialists brought on by ACORN to fight all this bad press. And here is Scott’s response to the question about the Catholic Bishop’s suspending ACORN funding:

"The facts are wrong and we will no longer participate in a Drew Griffin hatchet job against ACORN.”

Less than an hour later, after our editorial director made a call to ACORN asking if this really was their response, we got this from another public relations specialist ACORN brought on to fight the bad press:

“ACORN is grateful to have received CCHD funding for many years, and proud that CCHD has enabled us to help our low income constituency achieve the American Dream. We know that CCHD is reviewing their current funding, and we are in discussions with them about continuing their support.” – Steve Kest, ACORN Executive Director

The tension over at ACORN must be so thick you could cut it with a …well, I guess a hatchet.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Election 2008 • Politics • Special Investigations Unit


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October 27, 2008

Negotiating for that ACORN “sit down in our office” interview

Posted: 06:35 PM ET

If you’ve been following our attempts to find out why so many ACORN voter registration forms are being turned in with apparently fraudulent information, you may have also seen my interview with ACORN’s chief organizer Bertha Lewis.
 

During our live interview I asked Ms. Lewis what ACORN was or is doing to prevent further voter registration fraud. She invited me to go to New York and see for myself.

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Here is how the conversation went:

DREW: “Is there anything else you can do, in terms of greater openness to put these issues to rest? Can you open the books? Can we work this out?

Bertha Lewis/Acorn chief Organizer: “Sure, we want Drew or anyone, Drew come sit down in our office.”

Of course, immediately after the interview, my producer Kathleen Johnston, called to ask when we could come and sit down in Ms. Lewis’ office, in fact we asked if we could come tomorrow. That was 11 tomorrow’s ago. We are still in negotiations with ACORN as to what exactly Ms. Lewis meant by her “come sit down in our office” invitation. ACORN has hired a crisis management team and a public relations firm to help them handle the press. And so far, at least handling us, has meant to keep their office door closed.

I’ll keep you posted….negotiations continue.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Election 2008 • Politics


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October 13, 2008

ACORN’s voter registration sinks and stinks in Lake County

Posted: 06:46 PM ET

10/13/08

Conventional thinking says poor people, minorities and the disenfranchised don’t vote because those in power try to make it as difficult as possible for these various groups to vote.

That is the reason ACORN, a far-left leaning consortium of community activism, decided this election cycle to aggressively register voters in America’s less affluent neighborhoods.

One of those areas is Lake County Indiana. For anyone outside of Indiana, this is Gary, a city of shuttered or crippling along steel mills, vacant store fronts and mostly black faces.

Vowing to make sure these forgotten faces get heard, ACORN initially sought to register as many as 45-thousand new voters in Lake County alone. That would have been tremendous given the county has just 300-thousand voters altogether.

Even so, when ACORN dropped off its pile of 5,000 new voter registration forms, the elections workers were elated. Both the republican and democratic workers inside the Lake County registrar’s office are excited about each new voter and were indeed hoping this election would be the one that ignited the kind of voter engagement that is our constitutional right.

But when they began peeling away the onion, so to speak, it started to rot. The first 2,100 voter applications were deemed fraud the other 2,900 were put aside. Now the Indiana Attorney General is being asked to investigate.

ACORN, which ran the voter drive, has tried to say allegations of voter registration fraud against ACORN is just another plot by those in power to keep those out of power from voting. No so. Having looked directly at the applications in question, I can tell you ACORN itself was defrauded by its own workers.

Paid to register voters, it appears all the ACORN workers did was fill in any old name, dead, made up or even a name on a fast food restaurant, and collect their pay.

Because every voter registration application must legally be reviewed, the workers in the Lake County Election’s office are spending 10 and 12 hour days trying to verify what they know are fake voter registration cards handed in by ACORN.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Special Investigations Unit


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September 16, 2008

Palin: From PTA to VP nominee

Posted: 04:35 PM ET
Republican Vice Presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin greets supporters at a campaign rally in Carson City, Nevada.
Republican Vice Presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin greets supporters at a campaign rally in Carson City, Nevada.

Drew Griffin
CNN Special Investigations Unit

Immediately after Gov. Sarah Palin’s surprise unveiling as GOP vice presidential nominee - I was shocked that so many people – including pundits, e-mailers, talk show hosts and politicians - knew so much about her.

When I was given this assignment to produce an hour-long documentary on the Alaska governor, I had no idea who she was. To be perfectly honest I didn’t even know the governor of Alaska was a "she."

But apparently everyone else did, and they all had an opinion about her.

Of course the opinions were equally divided based on your political leanings. Democrats began e-mailing reporter types with their talking points: evil, vindictive, lightweight, a conservative Christian out to tell us how to breed, teach and read. In a word, dangerous.

Republican talking points included: outside-the-beltway, corruption fighter, executive experience. A real person grounded in family, country and apple pie. (Make that moose burgers). And, it turns out, the celebrity antidote to the Obama star factor.

Sarah Palin turns out to be much more human than either the Republicans or Democrats would have you believe.

What struck me most about Palin is how accidentally she fell into this business.

Sens. John McCain, Barack Obama and Joe Biden all deliberately entered politics as a career.

Palin entered the tiny world of her politics as a PTA mom-turned-city-council-member-turned mayor.

I am not naïve enough to believe she had no political ambition beyond Wasilla and the great state of Alaska.

But I am convinced her meteoric rise started with a mom’s simple involvement in her children schools. And if nothing else, that is refreshing in national politics.

What do you think? Use this blog to weigh in with your opinions on Sarah Palin.

Filed under: Drew Griffin • Election 2008 • Politics • Special Investigations Unit


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