FROM THE MOMENT HE WADED into the issue of public schools, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s push for power at the Los Angeles Unified School District was packaged as a highly inspirational event. The mayor took questions at town-hall meetings, striding across various stages like a self-help guru at a motivational seminar. The mayor showed parents a snippet from Stand and Deliver, the film about a hard-working math teacher in East L.A.

Perhaps most heartwarming of all, a crowd of Spanish-speaking parents went to Sacramento to demand that lawmakers pass Villaraigosa’s school plan, which sought to strip the school board of much of its power. What better evidence of democracy in action than scores of working-class parents wearing blue T-shirts with the message “Powered by Parents”?

If only someone had mentioned, somewhere along the way, that the group rallying and delivering those parents was on the mayor’s payroll the whole time.

Six months after his summer in Sacramento, Villaraigosa turned in the financial reports for his Committee for Government Excellence and Accountability — the campaign that spent $1.1 million to win passage of the bill and defend it in court now that a judge has labeled it unconstitutional. Those reports show that nearly $73,000 of the money went to the nationwide organizing group ACORN and its employees, payments identified as campaign consulting services, travel and “meetings and appearances.”

Martha Sanchez, ACORN-L.A.’s vice president, says she sees no conflict, since the group voted to support Villaraigosa’s plan before his committee gave them a $20,000 contract to organize parents in favor of it. “Do you think people really care about who gets the money?” she asks.

The payments raise two possibilities: On the one hand, the mayor’s expenditure makes ACORN look like just another special-interest group, with its spokesmen serving as paid lobbyists for Villaraigosa. Or maybe ACORN is simply a grass-roots organization greased by big doses of special-interest money — contributions given to the mayor by companies like Anschutz Entertainment Group, which received $270 million from the city to build its L.A. Live entertainment complex.

Either way, it looks like disclosure is not exactly ACORN’s strong suit. And some question whether ACORN — which stands for “the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now” — is a little bit more corporate than it looks.

“It’s not at all grassroots,” says teacher Paul Huebner, who helped persuade the membership of United Teachers Los Angeles to oppose Villaraigosa’s school bill. “It’s almost like some of the old machines in New York, maybe Chicago too, where basically they’re as corrupt as all get-out but you can get what you want if a price is exacted.”

Huebner argues that if anyone is to blame for enabling ACORN, it’s UTLA, the union that represents 38,000 L.A. Unified teachers. The union’s leadership gave money to ACORN, as well as other groups that backed Villaraigosa’s school takeover, such as One L.A. and Inner City Struggle. ACORN’s Sanchez, on the other hand, praised union leaders for bucking rank-and-file teachers, calling them “old members with old ideas” who “won’t embrace change.”

ACORN, a Louisiana-based group that leans considerably to the left on most issues, speaks in favor of new affordable-housing projects and against charter schools. Yet it had no problem taking money from Villaraigosa’s lobbying committee, which collected six-figure checks from Republican business executives, charter-school advocates and Westside developers like JMB Realty, which gave Villaraigosa $100,000 and won city approval to build two 47-story luxury condo towers in Century City.

ACORN bragged about its appearances on Villaraigosa’s behalf last summer, boasting that it out-shouted the Los Angeles parents who opposed the mayor’s bill. On its Web site, the group declared that it dominated the legislative hearing room where the bill was heard.

Nathan James, the mayor’s Seattle-based consultant, says ACORN strongly supported the mayor’s bill even without the $20,000 contract. In addition to that contract, Villaraigosa gave ACORN $13,183 for travel expenses and nearly $16,000 to organizer John Jackson, a spokesman for ACORN’s spinoff group, Say Yes to Children. Villaraigosa paid another $24,000 to ACORN lead organizer Peter Kuhns, who was reimbursed for air travel and hotel rooms. Another $5,800 went to Sophie Stenbeck, after she left ACORN last summer to join the mayor’s schools campaign full time. “We were proud to work with them in getting the word out,” James says.

But then, foes of the Villaraigosa bill made their way to Sacramento too, relying heavily on the school district’s own $421,000 lobbying campaign. While ACORN parents who favored the bill were housed at the Sacramento Hilton — let’s just think of that two-day trip as Acorn-palooza — each of the 81 parents who opposed Villaraigosa’s bill received a $98 stipend from L.A. Unified for their own two-day junket. The stipend covered food and other expenses, since the district had already covered the cost of hotel rooms and the eight-hour bus trip.

L.A. Unified lawyer Kevin Reed defends the two trips, which cost taxpayers a combined $36,000. He argues that each parent was elected to an L.A. Unified leadership panel and therefore served as a representative of the district.

“These parent representatives do travel to conferences,” he says. “They’ve been to New York. They’ve been to Phoenix. They take [the trips] at district expense, and when they travel, they are entitled to a per diem to cover travel and expenses on the road.”

By now, the parents on both sides resemble those computer-generated armies you see marching across the desert in big Hollywood productions like Troy or The Mummy, nameless figures that give an event some dramatic tension. In the end, they almost don’t need to speak. They’re just legislative wallpaper, human eye candy for the lawmakers, who frequently deny them the chance to speak anyway.

It might seem odd that the public is learning about the mayor’s school-reform spending habits months after his lobbying campaign. But it’s no accident. The mayor’s campaign committee discloses its spending habits every six months, making his donations and expenditures secret from the public for long stretches — and old news by the time he tells the world.

The same is true of Villaraigosa’s latest campaign apparatus, the Partnership for Better Schools, the committee that will soon dump huge piles of money into the campaigns of the mayor’s slate of school-board candidates. By filing the paperwork for his committee with the county, the mayor ensured that voters won’t know which well-connected developer gave him money until July 31 — months after the election is over.

Had Villaraigosa registered the Partnership for Better Schools with the city’s Ethics Commission, voters would learn the names of his contributors before they go to the polls on March 6. Now they won’t.

Even after months of delay, the mayor’s committee could not identify all of its expenditures on ACORN from last summer. Although the mayor spent $34,000 on buses that sent parents to Sacramento and his town-hall meetings, not every passenger belonged to ACORN, James says.

And not every parent who backed Villaraigosa’s school plan traveled on the mayor’s dime. The Los Angeles Parents Union, organized by the charter-school company Green Dot, dipped into its own money.

Green Dot founder Steve Barr said his group paid its own way because it did not want to feel beholden to Villaraigosa. “To take money from them means you’re not an independent voice anymore,” says Barr. “And they offered. They offered a lot.”

LA Weekly