Saturday, May 23, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Michele Bachmann on ACORN (Updated x2)

Fact-checking the fact checkers

Another substitution of ad hominem for fact-checking

The next most recent PolitiFact entry dealing with a Michele Bachmann statement plainly set aside the objective model of journalism in favor of opinion--poorly supported opinion, counting the granting of any benefit of the doubt.

This week found PolitiFact once again grinding a political axe, and accordingly serves as a good evidence of political bias at PolitiFact.

The issue:

I'll end the suspense right away. PolitiFact finds Bachmann's claim "False."

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley (writer, researcher)
Bill Adair (editor)


As with the last Bachmann entry by PolitiFact I checked, this one immediately sets aside the pretense of journalistic objectivity.
U.S. Rep. Michelle (sic) Bachmann's latest outrage focuses on an old nemesis: ACORN.
The first sentence is an attack on Bachmann. The statement implies that she is guilty of serial outrage, though PolitiFact has only previously rated two of her statements. And regardless of how many were rated, the opening statement is an editorial judgment with no place in an objective news story.

In a May 6 press release, Bachmann sounded the alarm:

"At least $53 million in federal funds have gone to ACORN activists since 1994, and the controversial group could get up to $8.5 billion more tax dollars despite being under investigation for voter registration fraud in a dozen states. The economic stimulus bill enacted in February contains $3 billion that the non-profit activist group known more formally as the Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now could receive, and 2010 federal budget contains another $5.5 billion that could also find its way into the group's coffers."

Press release? The text linked via PolitiFact ("U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann's Web site, Press release: "ACORN got $53 million in federal funds since 94, now eligible for up to $8 billion more," May 6, 2009") consists entirely of a Washington Examiner story. Perhaps things were different when Farley investigated, but currently this "press release" is classified under "Articles," not "Press Releases" at the Bachmann Web site. In other words, the quotation attributed to Bachmann is not even her statement. Farley is primarily fact-checking Kevin Mooney's commentary for the Examiner, not Bachmann.
She has since thrown these numbers out several times in interviews, including ones with Lou Dobbs on CNN and Glenn Beck on Fox.
Bachmann on CNN with Lou Dobbs and Barney Frank:
ACORN has received approximately $53 million since the early 1990s. Now, between the stimulus and the budget that was passed by President Obama, they have access potentially to $8.5 billion.
Bachmann on the Glenn Beck program (May 13, 2009):
No organization has a right to taxpayer funding. And, and, if you look at ACORN, they have been the recipients of about $53 million in direct funding since 1994. Now with the stimulus bill and with the last budget bill, there's a potential that ACORN could have access to--get this--over $8 billion, potentially, in grants. This is serious money.
What problem does Farley detect?
In January, we addressed a piece of this when we fact-checked a claim from House Republican Leader John Boehner, who warned the economic stimulus package "could open billions of taxpayer dollars to left-wing groups like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)." Boehner was referring to $2.2 billion in the stimulus package for "neighborhood stabilization," essentially money doled out to groups to buy up abandoned and foreclosed homes, to rehabilitate them and then sell or rent them out. ACORN said it had no plans to apply for the funding, and if it did, the money would have to be used to buy and fix abandoned houses, not for voter registration efforts. We ruled that claim Barely True.
No doubt the ruling applies to Boehner's claim rather than ACORN's claim. But Bachmann does not appear to mention anything at all about using the money for voter registration and nor does Mooney's story. Is Farley's imagination on overdrive?
This latest claim from Bachmann follows the same tortured logic on an even grander scale.
What "tortured logic"? How do we get from mentioning nothing at all about the specific destination of the funding to "tortured logic" to the effect that the money would be used for voter registration? Couldn't it be enough that ACORN is innately partisan and at the same time under an ethical cloud because of its pattern of voter registration fraud? Is ACORN left wing merely because of its voter registration drives? That hardly seems like the case.

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ACORN’s 2006 election campaign, "Raise the Minimum Wage," represented unprecedented victory for working families.

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Let us hope for a better explanation from Farley of the supposed problems with Bachmann's claim:
A spokesman from Bachmann's office said the congresswoman got her data from a May 6, 2009, Washington Examiner commentary written by Kevin Mooney, who got the $8.5 billion figure from Matthew Vadum, a senior analyst and editor with Capital Research Center, a conservative think tank.
No kidding. Way to go, Sherlock Farley. Mooney was the one who wrote the statement you attributed to Bachmann. What ever would we do without PolitiFact?

Let's first look at how they arrived at that number. It includes, of course, the same $2.2 billion that Boehner cited from the stimulus package. Vadum also adds in another $1 billion in the stimulus for Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds. ACORN could potentially tap into that, he said.

The remaining $5.5 billion comes from the Obama administration's proposed 2010 budget, specifically the budget for Housing and Urban Development. The budget plan includes $1 billion for an Affordable Housing Trust Fund, plus $4.5 billion more for CDBGs.

Comes to about $8.5 billion, then. Has Farley detected more invisible "tortured logic"?

CDBGs have been around since 1974. Obama is seeking to increase the CDBG budget, from about $3.6 billion in 2009 to $4.2 billion next year. And then there's the addition $1 billion for CDBGs in the stimulus. But the point is, this isn't some new pot of money that hasn't been available in years past. To the extent ACORN has been eligible for CDBG money for decades, it is available to ACORN now.

But the fact is, ACORN isn't eligible for CDBG funding. At least not for the controversial voter registration efforts that Republican leaders claim are a willful effort to forward the group's liberal agenda.

Note the second paragraph. Farley says that ACORN is not eligible for CDBG funding with respect to its voter registration drives. What a relief! That would cut out all but one of the aims listed on this ACORN Web page, leaving such things as a campaign for federally mandated paid sick leave--if we take Farley literally.

The problem is that we have no clear assurance that ACORN is limited to non-partisan use of the funds for any of its purposes or services. ACORN is, after all, not a government organization. Who polices their efforts to ensure non partisanship? Farley, perhaps? Is paying for Democrat votes via housing assistance less dubious than fraudulent registration practices? Farley doesn't tread anywhere near that road.

But maybe he should, as this excerpt from a CDBG document might suggest:
“Grantees are responsible for managing the day-to-day operations of grant and subgrant supported activities. Grantees must monitor . . . subgrant supported activities to assure compliance with applicable Federal requirements and that performance goals are being achieved. Grantee monitoring must cover each program, function, or activity.”
(Subpart J of 24 CFR Part 85 “Uniform Administrative Requirements for Grants and Cooperative Agreements to State and Local Governments," from here)
In short, ACORN polices ACORN and its subsidiaries, though the same source implicitly suggests that HUD inspections could occur.

But back to Farley and PolitiFact:
ACORN has a complex corporate structure. It's actually a network of affiliates. The ACORN that Republicans love to hate gets involved in political activity like voter registration. But there are other entities, like the sister company, ACORN Housing Corporation, a non-profit that provides free housing counseling to low and moderate income homebuyers. Some of the ACORN Housing affiliates have also dabbled in affordable housing projects, and have received federal funding. But ACORN Housing doesn't get involved in voter registration activities at all.
There's that "voter registration activities" straw man again. If only AIG could compartmentalize as well as Farley does on behalf of ACORN. Bachmann, Mooney and Vadum do not talk about the money going for voter registration. Yet it supposedly demonstrates Bachmann's "tortured logic."

According to the Washington Examiner's report, ACORN and its affiliates have received $53 million from the federal government since 1994. Most of that federal money went to the ACORN Housing Corporation, which by law could not be used for voter registration.

We checked, and there is no money in the stimulus package or the budget for voter registration programs.

That's great, except it is not really true that the money could not be used for voter registration. Rather, it would simply be illegal for the money to be used for voter registration or other political activities. And ACORN is reponsible for ensuring compliance, with occasional inspections from HUD. My personal experience with government inspections is that they are pretty much a joke. Make the paperwork look pretty, behave yourself while the inspection is underway, and then back to business as usual. Not that Bachmann's veracity rests on ACORN using the funds for voter registration. It is reasonable to see the entire organization as tainted by the voter registration scandals. Unless you happen to be targeting Michele Bachmann.
According to a July 2002 report from the Employment Policies Institute called "Rotten ACORN, America's Bad Seed," tax forms show that since 1997, the ACORN Housing Corporation has paid more than $5 million in fees or grants to other ACORN entities. The report does not claim, however, that federal tax dollars were shifted into ACORN voter registration efforts.
The EPI report does make the following claim, however:
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now is registered as a non-profit corporation in Arkansas, which does not require public financial disclosure.
Maybe that is why the report does not claim that federal tax dollars were shifted into ACORN voter registration efforts? Because there was not any real way to either confirm it one way or the other given the lack of disclosure? And Farley did not bother to mention it?

Nor this?:
Since 1977, ACORN has accepted federal government grants. That year it was awarded a grant to hire VISTA volunteers, who were supposed to be put to work helping Employment Policies Institute / 21 low-income individuals. ACORN used the volunteers—in violation of federal law—for two of its favorite pastimes: politics and union organizing.
I guess Farley is technically accurate, since "politics and union organizing" are not voter registration efforts. But most would call them political activities. Though the voter registration aspect remains a straw man, from what I can tell.

And Farley's course takes us yet further along Surreal Boulevard:

Asked what funds ACORN Housing has transferred to other ACORN affiliates, Vadum said ACORN Housing has paid over $1.5 million to Citizens Consulting Inc., which he describes as "the shadowy part of the ACORN network where money seems to disappear into."

That's absurd, said ACORN executive director Steven Kest. Citizens Consulting Inc. is the accounting arm of the ACORN organization. CCI handles bookkeeping, payroll accounting and other financial management services for ACORN and its many affiliates. And ACORN Housing doesn't even use CCI anymore, as it now does its accounting in-house, Kest said.

Did Farley forget to mention that Citizens Consulting Inc. is run by the brother of ACORN's founder and engages in lobbying on behalf of ACORN according to one of his sources?

Apparently so:
ACORN paid Citizens Consulting, Inc.—which is run by Rathke’s brother—$520,000 for lobbying between 1998 and 2004.
The Salvador Dali of fact-checking begins painting his conclusion:
Bottom line, we don't see any evidence that ACORN Housing has transferred money to ACORN for voter registration, so we think it's incorrect for Bachmann to link federal money that ACORN Housing might receive with the more controversial voter registration activities performed by sister organization ACORN.
Bachmann did not link federal money that ACORN Housing might receive with the more controversial voter registration activities performed by ACORN, certainly not in the sense that Farley clearly intends where the current government actions would funnel money specifically to voter registration drives. She did implicitly link the practice of voter fraud to the worthiness of organizations to receive federal funding. And if ACORN Housing really isn't directly connected with ACORN proper then we should doubt that the law Bachmann duped Barney Frank into approving would apply in the first place.
Even more ridiculous is the suggestion that ACORN or any of its affiliates might actually get $8.5 billion in federal tax dollars.
Bachmann, Mooney and Vadum were each very clear that the $8.5 billion was an amount potentially available to ACORN. Farley has constructed another straw man.

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Straw men do not belong in the fact-checking business. Not that I'm prejudiced or anything.

(W)hen Bachmann says ACORN could get that amount, it assumes the group would get every single dime in the stimulus for fixing up abandoned homes. And remember, they said they don't even have plans to apply for any of it.

Even if Bachmann says "ACORN could get that amount" it does not, contrary to Farley's assertion, assume anything about how much ACORN would actually get. Could a person who places the worst face on Bachmann's words come to that conclusion? Sure. Farley at least provides us proof of that. But "ACORN could get that amount" is a statement of possibility and Bachmann was considerably more circumspect than Farley suggests.

The quotation Farley misattributes to Bachmann says "could get up to."

Bachmann on television with Lou Dobbs said "access potentially to $8.5 billion."

Bachmann on television with Glenn Beck said "there's a potential that ACORN could have access to ... over $8 billion, potentially, in grants."

Bachmann obviously emphasized that the figure in the $8 billion range was a potential figure. Farley, in addition to falsely attributing Mooney's words to Bachmann, obscures the care she took in making her public statements on the subject.

Between Bachmann and Farley, Bachmann is the more accurate of the two in this case. Farley helps reinforce that distinction by subsequently using ACORN's executive director, Steven Kest, as his go-to expert on accountability standards for government grants:
"These are competitive grants for very specific projects," Kest said."The money can only be used for the project you bid for. It can't go to voter registration. If you've ever had any experience with grant funding from the federal government, they do a good job of making sure the money is used for the purposes it was intended. You can't use the money for any other reason. You can't transfer the money to other vehicles for other purposes."
The Government Accounting Office seems somewhat less impressed than Kest with grant accountability standards. The GAO produced a report in 2007 called "Single Audit Quality" with the subtitle "Actions Needed to Address Persistent Audit Quality Problems."

Note the key finding of that report:
In its June 2007 Report on National Single Audit Sampling Project, the PCIE found that, overall, approximately 49 percent of single audits fell into the acceptable group, with the remaining 51 percent having deficiencies severe enough to classify the audits as limited in reliability or unacceptable. PCIE found a significant difference in results by audit size. Specifically, 63.5 percent of the large audits (with $50 million or more in federal award expenditures) were deemed acceptable compared with only 48.2 percent of the smaller audits (with at least $500,000 but less than $50 million in federal award expenditures). The PCIE report presents compelling evidence that a serious problem with single audit quality continues to exist. GAO is concerned that audits are not being conducted in accordance with professional standards and requirements. These audits may provide a false sense of assurance and could mislead users of the single audit reports.
So, ACORN is responsible for ensuring its own compliance with government standards for audits, and even if an audit occurs roughly half of the reports fall below acceptable standards. Is Kest's assurance of adequate accountability an acceptable standard for fact checking? Did we just receive an assurance from the fox that the hen house is well protected?

Dali applies the finishing strokes:
Bachmann's statement is irresponsibly misleading on several levels. She says the group under indictment for voter registration fraud could tap into billions of federal dollars. In fact, none of the federal money can be used for voter registration activities.
Again, Farley implies that Bachmann is suggesting that the federal grant money would be directed toward voter registration activities even though Bachmann neither says that nor provides more than the very faintest of implications that would be the case. There is a disconnect between what Farley says Bachmann said ("the group under federal indictment for voter registration fraud could tap into billions of federal dollars") and the subsequent accusation that the statement is misleading ("In fact, none of the federal money can be used for voter registration activities").

It should go without saying that the Bachmann statement is correct even if it were true that none of the federal money can be used for voter registration activities. And, as shown above, the assurance that none of that money would be used for political activities is diaphanously thin.

Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that Bachmann's supposed misleading is a product of Farley's faulty inference.

Farley's last word rolls his faulty inferences into a neat conclusion:
An affiliate like ACORN Housing could conceivably apply for a grant to build an affordable housing project, or to buy, fix and sell abandoned homes, but that's exactly what the money would have to be used for. Suggestions that one of the affiliates might funnel money to ACORN for political activity is, so far, unsubstantiated conjecture. And then there's the matter of trying to make a splash by throwing out the massive $8.5 billion number, suggesting ACORN "could get" it, as in all of it. That's absurd. We rule Bachmann's statement False.
1) We have little assurance that ACORN could not use the money other than for its intended purpose. Indeed, it is possible that buying, fixing and selling abandoned homes can be done in a politically partisan manner. Farley fails to consider that possibility, and does a wholly inadequate job of supporting his associated assertions.

2) Neither Bachmann nor her sources suggested that that an ACORN affililiate would funnel the as-yet-unallocated money toward political activity. Farley's own source did, however, provide evidence that ACORN had steered grant money toward political activities in the past. Bachmann's point is simple: ACORN has been indicted for engaging in fraudulent voter registration, and that should disqualify the organization from receiving federal grant money. Bachmann has her facts straight. One might disagree with Bachmann that all branches of the ACORN tree should be barred from receiving federal funding, but that is a political question, not a question of fact.

3) Finally, as noted above, Farley is simply making things up when he suggests that Bachmann is saying that ACORN would get the entire $8.5 billion for the asking. That is not a fair reading of Bachmann's public statements. Farley's inferences suggest a political bias on his part.

The inaccuracy of Farley's attempt at fact checking is positively surreal.

The grades:

Robert Farley: F
Bill Adair: F


I wanted to belatedly draw attention to the way PolitiFact uses misleading blurbs to advertise its stories. See below for an image clipped from the PolitiFact main "Truth-O-Meter" page.

What jumps out from this graphic? Two things. The image of Michele Bachmann, helpfully labeled, and the "False" Truth-O-Meter rating on the opposite side of the box. And there would not be anything wrong with that if the grade was close to realistic. But observe the text accompanying the graphics.

To the left, we have the statement Farley misattributes to Bachmann. Not a good start.

To the right, we have a brief caption apparently justifying the rating given to Bachmann:
"Access to" and "actually getting" are two very different things.
Yes they are two very different things. But Bachmann only emphasized access to while never suggesting "actually getting." Even comparing "actually getting" with the statement falsely attributed to Bachmann cannot support the charge ("could get up to").

The graphic fairly represents Farley's ridiculous attempt at fact checking, albeit without letting on that it is ridiculous. But it is tremendously unfair to Bachmann.


Update 2:

Megathanks to Matthew Vadum for prominently linking to this post through a story of his at The American Spectator. His story makes this attack on Bachmann the central exhibit of a brief evaluation of the efforts at PolitiFact; a portion of the story delves into the general liberal tilt of PolitiFact's parent, the St. Petersburg Times.

Look under the tag "Grading PolitiFact" for more evaluations of a fact-checking outfit that might as well be taking its cues from Media Matters.

May 24, 2009: Corrected spelling of eight cylinder word "diaphanous"
Minutes later, corrected spelling of "Michele" where applicable.
Finally took out that extra "e" from "judgment"

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