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ACORN defenders speak up

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LOS ANGELES — Armed with little more than pen and pad, ACORN organizer David Mazariegos hits inner-city streets to save his embattled employer rather than his usual mission of saving homes from foreclosure.

Mazariegos approaches Jose and Maria Rodriguez on their patio surrounded by overflowing potted plants and a Virgin of Guadelupe statue and asks if they would speak at a news conference about how ACORN saved their house.

Maria Rodriguez doesn't hesitate. "The only people who helped us were ACORN. We tried to negotiate with the bank, but they wouldn't listen," she said. "We paid $5,000 to a company to help us fix the loan. They took the money and didn't do anything."

As the nonprofit Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now strives to survive the worst scandal in its 39-year history — videotapes of staffers counseling a faux pimp and prostitute how to run a brothel — the organization is doing what it does best: mobilizing low-income people. In this case, the goal is to restore the organization's credibility.

The mobilization effort is unfolding on several fronts. People like Rodriguez are being asked to speak up about how ACORN helped them. She and her husband also agreed to work a phone bank and bring five new people to the next community meeting. And ACORN officials say people are donating more money as they rally to the organization's defense.

ACORN activists across the country say being the voice for the voiceless is the real story of their organization. That's why they refuse to buckle to what they see as right-wing detractors trying to bring down the group because it teaches poor people to stand up for themselves.

Their work continues, whether it's stopping bulldozing of flooded homes in New Orleans, building housing for the working poor in New York City or protesting teacher layoffs in Los Angeles.

Fallout from the videotape scandal has been harsh. ACORN lost millions of dollars in federal funding and associations with institutions such as Bank of America and the U.S. Census Bureau. Several states are investigating the group's operations. In recent years, it also has weathered charges of voter-registration fraud and embezzlement by the founder's brother. But the widely broadcast videotapes, recorded on hidden camera, have damaged the organization's credibility.

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