* Grassroots group under fire for alleged malpractice
* But scandal seen unlikely to hurt Obama administration
* Government investigates, Congress slashes funding
By Matthew Bigg
ATLANTA, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Republicans are rejoicing over a scandal surrounding liberal grassroots group ACORN, but its woes seem unlikely to rub off on Democratic President Barack Obama, who has been associated with the group in the past.
Both parties have criticized the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now since secretly filmed videos emerged on YouTube last week showing ACORN workers giving advice on how to flout the law to two conservative activists who posed as a pimp and a prostitute
Working in inner city areas, ACORN’s declared mission is to promote affordable housing, offer tax counseling and fight home foreclosures, but it has faced controversy before.
The Justice Department’s inspector general said on Monday he would look into whether ACORN received any grant money from the department and if any DOJ reviews or audits were done.
The decision follows a request from Lamar Smith, the top Republican on the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee and follows votes in Congress on Friday to cut ACORN’s federal funding.
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau also said it did not want ACORN to take part in the public awareness campaign for the coming 2010 census.
The scandal initially appeared to have the potential to embarrass Democrats and the president, as ACORN’s political action committee endorsed Obama for the presidency in 2008.
The group backs some of Obama’s policies, including his healthcare reform, has close ties to labor unions and last year registered 1.3 million voters in areas where Democrats poll strongly.
Obama in 1992 did some work for Project Vote, an arm of the group, and he frequently told voters during last year’s presidential campaign that he understood their concerns because he had worked as a community organizer.
As a result, conservatives are quick to talk up what they say are ties between ACORN’s stances and government policies.
"ACORN has the Obama administration’s ear. They have this continuing influence. They are cheerleaders for radical policies and the Democratic leadership and President Obama listens to them," said Matthew Valdum, senior editor at the Capital Research Group and a critic of ACORN.
But the scandal will only sway key independent voters if close ties between ACORN’s alleged malpractice and government leaders are proved, said Alan Abramowitz, political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
"This is a sideshow .... unless there is compelling evidence that individuals in the Administration were involved in the misconduct," said Abramowitz, who argued that its impact would likely dissipate before congressional elections in November next year.
Rather than change voters’ minds, the scandal would reinforce the views of conservatives opposed to Obama anyway, said Steven Greene, professor of politics at North Carolina State University.
ACORN said on Tuesday it had hired former Massachusetts attorney general, Democrat Scott Harshbarger, to conduct an inquiry into the services it delivered to communities.
No stranger to criticism and controversy, ACORN for years has struggled to overcome the consequences of an embezzlement case involving its founder’s brother.
The umbrella community organizing group, which includes local charities, describes itself on its web site as a "non-profit, non-partisan, social justice organization".
But its critics portray ACORN as a radical leftist organization committed to subverting U.S. capitalism on behalf of the poor, and to undermining elections through fraud.
It began registering voters at a time when political parties realized face-to-face appeals to potential supporters were more effective than using advertising, said Andra Gillespie, assistant professor of politics at Emory University.
Because it worked in poor and inner city neighborhoods, most people it registered were likely Democrats, she said.
ACORN offers a robust defense and says it is the target of political attack because of its stand on national issues.
Steps were being taken to rectify organizational failings that emerged in the YouTube video and the workers involved have been fired or suspended, said Nathan Henderson-James, an online organizer for the group.
ACORN has also been under fire over cases of voter registration fraud. But Henderson-James conceded that 1.5 percent of the voters it registered last year were listed under false names but said it was ACORN — not conservative critics — who reported the problem to election authorities.
"We were elevated to the status of bogeyman because of the kind of changes our constituents want to see: stronger labor laws, healthcare reform, finding the root causes of the housing collapse," he said.
Critics "are only interested in disrupting the work that ACORN does for its constituents," he added.
That view was echoed by other activists with grassroots organizations who said ACORN was the target of a witchhunt.
"The whole thing ... is completely ideological and shameful," said Lanya Shapiro, executive director of Traction, a group based in Durham, North Carolina, that promotes civic engagement and leadership.
"The right wing media propagandists who are fomenting this should be ashamed of themselves," Shapiro said. (Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky in Washington) (Editing by Pascal Fletcher and David Storey)