06.11.2010 0

ACORN Threatened to Sue Whistleblower Group for Trademark Infringement

By Kevin Mooney –

Exactly one year ago, ACORN threatened to sue former insiders who formed a whistleblower group aimed at exposing the misappropriation and co-mingling of funds that have been the subject of congressional investigations.

In a letter dated June 11, 2009, ACORN’s legal counsel demanded that activists operating under the banner of ACORN 8 “cease and desist” in their use of the ACORN name and set a deadline of June 30, 2009 for compliance. Legal action was not forthcoming after the whistleblower group resisted the ultimatum.

“It is a violation of federal and state law for you to use the ACORN name and mark without the written permission of ACORN, Arthur Schwartz, the ACORN attorney wrote in his letter addressed to former board members Karen Inman and Marcel Reid. “Should you continue to do so, you will be liable for monetary damages and injunctive relief.”

Reid, Inman and other whistleblowers suspected at that time that ACORN executives were already in the early stages of rebranding and remarketing the organization. When it was announced last summer that ACORN International had changed its name to Community Organizations International, this was viewed as a prelude to a more expansive reorganization effort. The announcement was made by Wade Rathke, the ACORN founder who was forced out over an embezzlement scandal involving Dale Rathke, his brother.

Scott Levenson, an ACORN spokesman, denied that any kind of rebranding scheme was in the works.

“ACORN is not changing its name,” he declared in a released statement. “ACORN International is a five-year old organization from which ACORN withdrew a year ago as part of an overall restructuring process and requested that they stop using the ACORN name, which they have now done. Wade Rathke was fired as Chief Organizer of ACORN in June 2008.”

On April 1 of this year, ACORN’s national leadership announced it was dissolving its national network, but the much publicized proclamation was intentionally misleading, according to former board members.

“Always note the date, April 1.” Reid said in an interview. “ACORN is not dissolving, it may be morphing, but it is still is in business and it is still in a position to receive funding, although it may be done under different names.”

Bertha Lewis, ACORN’s chief organizer, has acknowledged as much in an email message to supporters.

“ACORN is not dead!” she said.  “ACORN is alive because you are alive and still fighting for justice.”

In the wake of last year’s videotape scandals that showed ACORN workers describing to undercover investigators how they could potentially manipulate financial documents and arrange for illegal services, national and state affiliates have moved to drop the organization’s tarnished name.

However ACORN 8, which is named for the eight board members who were blocked from investigating the embezzlement scandal involving the Rathke brothers, is maintaining its label.

“We don’t view the name ACORN 8 as a particular obstacle because ACORN 8 is what we LLC’D under,” Reid explained. “ACORN does not and cannot own the name, it’s an acronym and we LLC’D the name ACORN itself as part of ACORN 8 and we don’t see this as an impediment at all. We want to keep the name ACORN 8 as a way to bring the people in ACORN to some level of accountability. The people we named in our original complaint have not answered for what they have done.”

The Justice Department complaint ACORN 8 activists filed in January 2009 claims Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder and then chief organizer Wade Rathke, embezzled almost $1 million between 1999 and 2000 and that it was covered up by staff members who also declined to alert law enforcement. In Louisiana, where ACORN was previously headquartered, Buddy Caldwell, the state’s attorney general concluded as part of a subsequent investigation that the actual embezzlement figure was closer to $5 million.

ACORN, which is known in full as The Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, claimed through its attorney in the June 2009 letter that it had the “exclusive right to use the ACORN name/mark in connection with community organizing services.” ACORN’s attorney also wrote in the letter that it was a violation of federal and state law for the whistleblower group to use the ACORN name without explicit permission.

“ACORN is committed to aggressively defending its name, and its established trademark, and will not permit these actions to continue,” the letter said. “We have been instructed by ACORN to use all necessary legal and equitable remedies to enforce its rights, including but not limited to, filing an action in court seeking an injunction and damages.”

The letter concludes by demanding written assurances from ACORN 8 that they will discontinue using the ACORN name no later than June 30, 2009. Since then, the whistleblower group has actually expanded in size under the banner of ACORN 8 as it pursues community initiatives and presses for reform, Reid said.

In July 2008, board members who are now part of ACORN submitted 31 questions at an ACORN national meetin that included requests for the following information:

“Listing of all Accounting Firms (with contact information) for all ACORN related entities.”

“Copy of all existing contracts with the Accounting Firms for all ACORN related entities.”

“Copy of all organizational documentation for the `Chief Organizer Fund’

“Copy of all ACORN related payments made to the `Chief Organizer Fund.’

After persisting in their push for a wider investigation, Reid and Inman were ultimately removed from their board positions.

“How can anyone oppose the original mission of ACORN, which is to empower lower and moderate income people?” Reid asks. “If those 31 questions had been answered, ACORN would have been forced to close, or clean up.”

Reid estimates there are over 20 active ACORN8 members who support a forensic audit and a suspension of financial support for the state and national networks that previously operated under the ACORN name.

ACORN Housing Corp., the national affiliate at the epicenter of the videotape scandal, has renamed itself Affordable Housing Centers of America. Several state affiliates have also followed suit and rebranded themselves as follows:

In California, ACORN is now the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (“ACCE”). In Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, ACORN is New England United for Justice. In New York, ACORN is New York Communities for Change. In Arkansas, ACORN has become Arkansas Community Organizations (“ACO”). In Louisiana ACORN is “A Community Voice.” In Missouri, ACORN is Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (“MORE”). In Washington State, ACORN is Organization United for Reform (“OUR”) Washington. In Minnesota, ACORN is Minnesota Neighborhoods Organizing for Change. In Pennsylvania, ACORN has become the Pennsylvania Communities Organizing for Change (“PCOC”) and Pennsylvania Neighborhoods for Social Justice, Inc. In Texas, ACORN is now the Texas Organizing Project.

Despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, that upheld the congressional ban on funding for ACORN, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) sees little appetite on the part of Democrats to permanently cut off federal support.

“ACORN’s cover has been blown and its true identity has been revealed but it remains a viable entity beneath different names with the same patrons and same funding sources,” she explained in an interview. “I don’t see a tremendous change in the structure that called itself ACORN. But there is more scrutiny, which means they have to play a more sophisticated shell game.”

Moreover, Bachmann added, the renamed entities remain well positioned to receive support from left leaning foundations that are no longer burdened by the sullied ACORN name.

Kevin Mooney is a contributing editor at NetRightDaily.com.

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