By Molly K. Hooper - 10/04/09 10:59 PM EDT
Top-ranking liberal lawmaker Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) pressed her colleagues to support a legislative counterpunch to the GOP’s effort to defund the controversial grass-roots organizing group ACORN.
McCollum, a senior Democratic Whip in her caucus, challenged the 172 Democrats who supported a measure to cut off federal funds for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to endorse a similar measure geared towards private companies in business with the government.
Democratic Reps. Raul Grijalva (Ariz.), David Obey (Wis.), Pete Stark (Calif.), Keith Ellison (Minn.), Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), Jim McDermott (Wash.) and Barbara Lee (Calif.) have co-sponsored the bill that would cut off federal agreements with private companies, nonprofits and other groups that have been convicted of defrauding the government.
Of those members, Obey was the only one to support the GOP motion to defund ACORN that the House adopted by a vote of 345-75-2 in mid-September. Seventy-five Democrats voted against defunding ACORN.
McCollum circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter for members to sign last week in which she explained that her bill “is modeled after (the Defund ACORN Act) H.R. 3571 but respects the Constituiton by requiring a corporation to be guilty of a felony before federal funds are cut off.”
Under the GOP-offered defunding measure, any person, group or association that does any business or is affiliated with ACORN would be ineligible to receive federal dollars. The group or individual must only be indicted in order for the government to stop the federal support.
“Targeting one nonprofit that serves low-income people, while billionaire organizations defraud taxpayers, there’s really no justice in that,” McCollum’s Chief of Staff Bill Harper said in an interview with The Hill.
He pointed to the section of the congresswoman’s bill that states “no Federal contract, grant, cooperative agreement, or any other form of agreement (including a memorandum of understanding) may be awarded to or entered into with the corporation or company for a 5-year period beginning 30 days after the date of the criminal conviction involved or terminations of the charter (as the case may be.)”
Harper explained that the president would be able to waive the law if the guilty companies were providing goods or services necessary for the “national interest.”
But companies and individuals convicted of committing fraud would not be able to make campaign contributions for five years after the conviction and their lobbying activities would be severely restricted.
For example, major pharmaceutical companies that have deals with the government-run healthcare programs Medicare and Tricare would be affected by the law were it to make it to the president’s desk.
In the findings portion of her bill, McCollum cites a recent case where pharmaceutical company Pfizer pleaded guilty to “intent to defraud or mislead” for the “illegal promotion of” Bextra – an arthritis drug voluntarily withdrawn from the market in 2005.
Under McCollum’s bill, Pfizer would be ineligible to enter into deals with the government. There have been many cases involving the pharmaceutical industry.
In 2008 alone, the pharmaceutical industry contributed $13,701,439 to federal candidates, divided equally between Democrats and Republicans, according to opensecrets.org.
For their part, Republicans call McCollum’s bill a distraction from the effort to uncover what they anticipate to be a lengthy list of felonious actions on the part of ACORN, including interactions with Democratic politicians.
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an ardent opponent of the embattled community-organizing group, said that Democrats were “caught flat-footed” when ACORN’s shady dealings were exposed, and that McCollum’s bill is likely to be the first in many attempts to try to “change the subject, make excuses, change the dialogue.”
“It’s one of the tools that they will use to try to change the subject,” King said.
Since 1994 ACORN, a grass-roots organization that provides tax-preparation services and housing assistance and registers and mobilizes voters, has received $53 million in federal funds.
The liberal nonprofit community organization has come under investigation in 14 states for allegations of voter fraud.
On Thursday, in Las Vegas, ACORN was formally charged with committing a felony. A justice of the peace ruled that the local chapter would stand trial on charges of illegally paying individuals to register voters for the 2008 election.
Over the last several weeks major entities such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Census Bureau and Bank of America ended ties with ACORN after controversies involving the group came to a tipping point when ACORN employees were caught on videotape allegedly advising a couple, undercover as a pimp and prostitute, how to open a prostitution business.
Though ACORN fired the employees and hired an outside prosecutor to conduct an internal investigation, Republicans in Congress have called on the various congressional committees of jurisdiction including House Judiciary, Financial Services and Oversight and Government Reform to hold their own probes.
Democrats have not committed to launching official investigations yet. Over the past few weeks, however, Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (Mich.) and Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (Mass.) have made overtures to holding some kind of investigation or hearing but nothing definitive has been set.