The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, has a justly earned reputation this decade for voter registration fraud, embezzlement and other illegal acts. Yet according to an eagerly-awaited internal assessment released yesterday, the radical nationwide nonprofit network’s main, if not sole, problem is inadequate employee training and oversight. The audit, supervised by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, had been prompted by employees of ACORN offices in different cities caught in a video sting this summer giving advice on how to hide assets and falsify loan documents. The New Orleans-based “anti-poverty” organization and its defenders see vindication. Critics see a whitewash, a set of rigged conclusions. The latter view is hard to avoid.
The context here is a series of headline-making amateur undercover videos released on the Internet and network television this past September. A pair of young conservative activists, James O’Keefe, 25, and Hannah Giles, 20, respectively, a law student and a columnist, posed as a pimp and his prostitute applying for mortgage and/or small business assistance at ACORN offices in five U.S. cities: Baltimore, Washington, D.C., New York City (Brooklyn), San Bernardino and San Diego. It was an audacious experiment on a $1,300 budget. And it worked. With the camera rolling, the couple caught various low-level ACORN employees in the act of giving advice on how to break the law to obtain financial aid. The recordings, posted on www.BigGovernment.com and aired on the Fox News Channel, showed the employees ready and willing to assist O’Keefe and Giles on the finer points of tax evasion, human trafficking, and child prostitution.
The videos proved highly embarrassing and costly to ACORN, especially as the group was trying to rehabilitate its image following revelations that its founder and longtime chief organizer, Wade Rathke, had been covering for his brother’s embezzlement of around $950,000 in organization funds for nearly a decade. Soon enough, the U.S. Census Bureau terminated ACORN as a participant in the 2010 Census, while the IRS dropped ACORN as a partner in its volunteer tax-preparation assistance program. A chastened House and Senate each voted overwhelmingly to end federal funding for ACORN, actions eventually inserted as an amendment to an appropriation bill. Egg on her face, ACORN chief organizer-CEO Bertha Lewis (see photo) announced that her group would be suspending taking on any new clients pending the results of an internal audit.
The job of the audit – that is, an audit geared toward exoneration without making the intent too obvious – fell upon Scott Harshbarger. Now 68, Harshbarger, a Democrat, is a Harvard Law School graduate who went on to serve as District Attorney for Middlesex County, Massachusetts (1983-91), Attorney General for Massachusetts (1991-99) and president of Common Cause (1999-02). Currently, he’s senior counsel to the Boston law firm of Proskauer Rose LLP. When the probe was announced on September 22, ACORN believed they had a man ideally suited to get to the bottom of things and propose lasting reforms.
After a two-month probe, Harshbarger has released a 47-page report. The conclusion: ACORN is innocent. Harshbarger summarized his report this way: “We did not find a pattern of intentional, illegal conduct by ACORN staff involved; in fact, no action, illegal or otherwise, was ever taken by any ACORN employee on behalf of the videographers. Instead, the videos represent the byproduct of ACORN’s longstanding management weaknesses, including a lack of training, a lack of procedures and a lack of onsite supervision.” ACORN leaders, he added, “appear committed to effect reform and are on their way to preserving ACORN and its mission in a reduced size and scope.” Harshbarger called upon the nonprofit network group to return to its community organizing roots and to hire an independent ethics officer to oversee an internal reform program already underway.
The Harshbarger report, in other words, sees ACORN’s problems as logistical rather than legal. This is music to the eyes and ears of the group’s officials and allies. CEO Bertha Lewis describes the report as “part vindication, part constructive criticism and 100 percent road map to the future.” Michael Keegan, president of the Left-leaning nonprofit activist group, People for the American Way, praised the report for its “sorely needed perspective.” He added: “In recent years the group has been accused by its opponents of doing just about everything, and no claim has been too wild to be passed off as fact. If ACORN’s antagonists are to be believed, the group stole the 2008 election, is responsible for the housing mortgage meltdown, and will receive billions in federal bailout funds.”
Such statements fairly burst with evasion. The group’s critics include not only “right-wingers,” but also investigators for the federal government and over a dozen states, plus former ACORN members-turned-whistleblowers. In Missouri, Colorado and elsewhere, voter registration fraud probes have yielded indictments and guilty pleas from any number of street-level ACORN operatives. This past summer, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., oversaw the preparation and release of an 88-page report providing overwhelming evidence that ACORN, by intent, has been structured as a criminal enterprise and is thus ripe for prosecution under federal anti-racketeering statutes. Congressman Issa, Ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, commenting yesterday on the Harshbarger report, asked, “How surprising is it that a report paid for by ACORN exonerates them?”
Adding fuel to the fire that ACORN’s self-reform program is more show than substance is the fact of its refusal to drop a civil lawsuit it filed in September in Maryland court against James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles, based on the pair’s sting of the Baltimore office. The suit, which claims the video violated a state ban on taping without the consent of both parties, also lists as a co-defendant Andrew Breitbart; it was Breitbart who posted the couple’s videos on his BigGovernment.com website. Apparently, ACORN’s defenders see knowingly giving advice on how to evade taxes, falsify mortgage loan application data, and smuggle illegal-immigrant child prostitutes as not really illegal. And they see those who complain of these things as mere fringe Rightists, aching for revenge for last year’s election results – never mind that those results in part likely owed to ACORN voter registration fraud on a substantial scale.
Even if ACORN wins the case — and, if anything, the evidence weighs in favor of dismissal — there’s a much larger issue: Any time low-level employees across an organization act in brazen defiance of criminal law, they assuredly had the tacit and possible overt approval of their higher-ups. ACORN was founded nearly 40 years ago as a project to promote economic equality at whatever cost to liberty. Adherence to the law, in its eyes, is but an impediment to the larger goal of lifting the poor into the mainstream of society. Founder-cult figure Wade Rathke may be gone from the scene – he was dismissed by the ACORN board in June 2008 – but the ideas animating the organization remain as alive as ever. The Obama administration would not have been possible without ACORN and community organizing groups like it. In exposing ACORN, investigative reporters – and video makers – are exposing a political culture of corruption that operates under the guise of the pursuit of social justice. Scott Harshbarger apparently prefers to turn a blind eye from that culture.