ACORN sued the federal government Thursday, charging that efforts by Congress and President Obama to stop federal money from going to the community activist organization are unconstitutional because they single the group out for punishment.
ACORN said Congress went too far when it wrote into a stopgap funding bill in October that the organization cannot receive any new money for federal contracts.
“All this without a hearing and with no judicial adjudication of guilt,” attorneys for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now said in papers filed in federal district court in New York.
ACORN said being singled out amounts to a “bill of attainder,” an ancient legal concept that deems a single person or entity guilty and worthy of punishment by legislation. Bills of attainder areprohibited by Article I of the Constitution.
Lawmakers have rejected the charge, saying neither ACORN nor any other group is entitled to federal money.
“The intent is not to punish but to safeguard taxpayers from waste, fraud and abuse,” said Ann Marie Hauser, a spokeswoman for Sen. Mike Johanns, Nebraska Republican and a leader in the fight to stop the funding. “ACORN is an organization that has a pattern and culture of employees engaging in fraud and other illegal behavior. Receiving federal funding is a privilege, not a right.”
Conservative groups have long been critical of ACORN, but the funding issue came to a head after an expose of the group that showed ACORN employees giving journalists posing as a prostitute and her pimp counseling on evading taxes and other illegal activities.
Legal scholars differ on the bill of attainder argument.
A Congressional Research Service report that looked at amendments that passed on other spending bills defunding ACORN said there could be problems. The report said the issue depends on what motivated members of Congress.
But Hans von Spakovsky, senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, said the courts are not likely to side with ACORN.
“The Supreme Court has not thrown out a congressional statute as a bill of attainder since 1965, and they have very defined standards on what is considered a bill of attainder, and there’s no way that the cutoff of federal funding to ACORN fits that definition,” he said.
Mr. Obama signed the ban on federal funding into law as part of a broader spending measure on Oct. 1, and renewed it in another spending bill he signed Oct. 30.
The law says no money “may be provided to the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), or any of its affiliates, subsidiaries, or allied organizations.”
ACORN argued that ban is hurting affiliates that have no direct connection with the charges levied at the national organization. In an affidavit filed with the lawsuit, the ACORN Institute says it has never been implicated in any of the problems, but it has pending grants to provide computer training and other education classes that are jeopardized by the new rules.
A message left for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which handles most ACORN money, was not returned.
Kurt Bardella, spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, the California Republican who sponsored the House version, said ACORN’s suit shows “just how desperate they are to use any mechanism available to subsidize an organization that is teetering on bankruptcy.”
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