The ACORN Standard

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 were
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.

A small but growing number of lawmakers are fighting to confront
out-of-control corporations. Here are three legislative initiatives that
stand out:

SS HR 3679. Representative Betty McCollum of Minnesota
introduced her own ACORN Act--the Against Corporations Organizing to Rip
off the Nation Act--which seeks to deny federal funds to "corporations
or companies guilty of certain felony convictions." Pfizer is singled
out, but the act could be applied to other corporations too. "Why are
companies that break the law as a business strategy allowed to receive
taxpayer funds?" asks McCollum. "A government contract is a privilege,
not a right. If a company commits a felony against the people of the
United States, then that privilege must end." Significantly, Wisconsin
Representative David Obey, chair of the powerful House Appropriations
Committee, has signed on as a co-sponsor. Obey also voted to defund

SS In the Senate, Bernie Sanders put forward an amendment to
the current defense authorization bill (HR3326 S. AMDT. 2617) that calls
on the defense secretary to conduct a wide-ranging study of the money
the government pays to contractors that have been indicted, settled
charges or been fined by any federal agency, as well as those that have
been convicted of fraud. It also calls for recommendations on how to
penalize contractors that are "repeatedly" involved with fraud.
"Virtually every major defense contractor in this country has, for a
period of many years, been engaged in systemic, illegal and fraudulent
behavior while receiving hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars of
taxpayer money," says Sanders. While Sanders is just calling for a
"study," the spirit of his amendment could be the basis for legislation
that targets corporate criminals receiving federal dollars.

SS Several Congressional offices say they are weighing the
possibility of introducing legislation that would apply the ACORN
standard to companies like Blackwater, whose operatives will stand trial
next year on manslaughter charges stemming from killing Iraqi civilians;
or KBR, which is being investigated in connection with the electrocution
deaths of US soldiers and contractors in Iraq. Representative Jan
Schakowsky says she is considering reintroducing a version of her 2007
Stop Outsourcing Security Act, which sought to ban the use of Blackwater
and other mercenary companies from performing armed activities on the
federal payroll. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a co-sponsor in the
Senate, now oversees the work of Blackwater and other armed State
Department contractors, increasingly employed in Afghanistan.

Florida Representative Alan Grayson is spearheading calls for fraudulent
military contractors to be defunded under the anti-ACORN legislation. He
points to Halliburton's misconduct and its "extreme and gross
negligence...putting in showers in Iraq that end up electrocuting
soldiers, and feeding them poisoned water." The federal funding ACORN
has received over the past twenty years, Grayson says, "is roughly equal
to what the taxpayer paid to Halliburton each day during the war in

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