Editorial: Fighting fraud

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has taken a bit of abuse for being one of only seven senators to vote against defunding the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, better known as ACORN.

Last month, both houses of Congress quickly voted to deny federal funding to the community group after the now-infamous videos by young right-wing activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles. The pair posed as a pimp and a prostitute and, with a hidden camera, went to a number of ACORN’s tax preparation offices seeking tax and business advice.

Some ACORN workers were fired for what Sanders called "an outrageous and absurd discussion with a couple of actors," but the attacks on ACORN stemmed from more than just the questionable activities of a few people caught on tape by people with an ideological ax to grind.

It was just the latest example of how conservatives insist upon accountability for the poor and powerless, while giving the wealthy and powerful a free pass when they do wrong.

ACORN is not a well-run organization, but it does the heavy lifting in community organizing efforts from voter registration to campaigns to raise the minimum wage. It’s this work on behalf the people at the bottom of the ladder that seems to enrage the right.

To put it into perspective, ACORN received about $53 million of federal funding over the past 15 years. Meanwhile, Blackwater, the private military contractor to which the federal contracts. Yet Blackwater (now known as Xe), a company that has five

of its employees facing murder charges in a massacre of Iraqi civilians in 2007, got a $217 million contract from the Obama administration to provide security in Iraq.

Or how about KBR? The former Haliburton subsidiary got $80 million in contract bonuses to provide electrical wiring in Iraq -- wiring that has fatally electrocuted 16 soldiers and two contractors. They haven’t been defunded by Congress.

According to the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight, the biggest three defense contractors -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman -- have been cited 109 times for misconduct since 1995 and have been fined or reached settlements for $2.9 billion. Yet these contractors keep getting government contracts. The three companies pocketed $77 billion in government contracts in 2007.

That why Sanders got an amendment added to the Defense Appropriations Bill, which focuses on defense contractors. It would require the Department of Defense to calculate how much the Pentagon pays companies that commit fraud, and also would make the Pentagon recommend how to penalize contractors that repeatedly cheat the government out of hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Virtually every major defense contractor in this country has been engaged in systemic, fraudulent behavior, while receiving hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayer money," said Sanders. "I wanted to expose the hypocrisy of going after an organization that helps low-income people while doing nothing about defense contractors who have received many, many billions in defense contracts and year after year, time after time, violated the law."

We agree with Sanders that if conservatives in Congress want to hammer ACORN for its misdeeds, that same standard ought to be applied to every other government contractor.

"Taxpayers want to know that the money we spend -- whether it is for defense, housing, education or any other purpose -- is spent as wisely and as cost-effectively as possible, said Sanders. "The right-wing echo chamber has focused on ACORN, but I say we need to take on the big guys who have been ripping off the American people to the tune of billions and billions of dollars, and in some instances, produced defective equipment that has put the lives of American servicemen at risk."