ACORN: A Cautionary Tale

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When is thievery not a crime but a personal tragedy? When is lying for personal gain or political expedience a mere error in judgment? The answer is obvious to any partisan. Your political enemies engage in criminal or morally repugnant acts; your allies, friends, and relations make mistakes or bend the rules for the greater good. As Rudolph Giuliani remarked during his presidential campaign, the definition of torture "depends on who does it."  Waterboarding was "aggressive questioning," when Americans inflicted it. "It was a judgment call," (not a criminal conspiracy,) ACORN president Maud Hurd said in 2008, describing the decision to cover-up the embezzlement of nearly a million dollars by Dale Rathke, the brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke.                 
  
No, I don't mean to suggest that torture and embezzlement are moral equivalents. I do mean to state that activists, advocacy groups, politicians, and pundits, left and right, display equivalent moral hypocrisy when rationalizing illegal or unethical conduct by some of their own. It's the hypocrisy bred by the self-righteousness of people convinced that they're on the side of the angels, that their commitment to the right cause makes them incapable of doing wrong. It's the hypocrisy that led the ACLU national board to trivialize, misrepresent, or conceal serious misconduct by its staff and lay leaders (the subject of my book, Worst Instincts.)  It's the hypocrisy that has consistently characterized the "progressive" response to recent and still unfolding ACORN scandals.  By ignoring, minimizing, or rationalizing grossly unethical and even criminal conduct, ACORN's left-wing friends have harmed it more than its right wing enemies ever could.                                                                          
    
Today ACORN leaders and supporters strain to contain the damage caused by the video sting of ACORN employees, characterizing the employee's conduct as anomalous and blaming the controversy over it not on any genuine concern about ACORN's recent history of gross dishonesty but on right wing pique at being out of power.  ACORN executive Bertha Lewis predictably decried the attacks on her organization as "reminiscent of the McCarthy era."                                         

Well yes, you'd have to be an idiot not to recognize the right wing's glee over ACORN's latest troubles and not to believe that many of its critics would refrain from attacking a conservative organization implicated in similar conduct. So what. ACORN's lack of integrity is not excused or ameliorated by the advantages Republicans derive from it.

ACORN's progressive supporters, not to its mention leaders, should begin by taking responsibility for its decline.  The depth of ACORN's dishonesty and dysfunction was clearly indicated over a year ago by New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom's stories revealing Dale Rathke's embezzlement of about $950,000 and its nearly decade long cover-up.  (ACORN had been accused of misconduct before, but the Times story could not simply be dismissed as another right wing smear campaign.)  The Times reported that not even the ACORN board had been informed of the theft, ("a small group of executives decided to keep the information from almost all of the group's board members and not to alert law enforcement.")  ACORN executives probably told themselves and each other that the cover-up was in the organization's interests, but the organization was not even reimbursed for its loss: The embezzlement reportedly occurred in 1999 and 2000; in July 2008, when the first Times story appeared, only a reported $210,000 had been paid back, and Dale Rathke had been allowed to remain on the payroll until mid 2008 when "disclosure of his theft by foundations and other donors forced the organization to dismiss him."

The follow-up to this story was equally disturbing: ACORN's leadership seemed to persist in concealing misconduct instead of acknowledging and correcting it.  In August 2008, a small group of ACORN activists, led by two members of an interim management committee, filed a lawsuit against the organization in a reported effort to separate it from the Rathke family, "protect financial records from destruction and enhance board access to documents."  In October 2008, a report released by an ACORN lawyer pointed to managerial and financial improprieties that "may have led to violations of federal laws." In November 2008, the dissenting interim management committee members were removed; their lawsuit was dropped, and the dissenting group (the ACORN 8) subsequently sought a federal investigation of the embezzlement.

This point is worth repeating: after allowing an embezzler to remain on the payroll for some 8 years, ACORN's leadership quickly expelled two dissident board members who seemed  intent on providing transparency and accountability.  The two dissidents were found to have violated ACORN's code of conduct (which apparently deemed whistle-blowing a graver offense than stealing,) and they were "aggressively trying to distract the organization from its core mission," ACORN chief executive Bertha Lewis recently explained to the Washington Post.

Reading these stories, you didn't need to be familiar with not for profit governance issues to recognize a profoundly compromised organization; you only needed to be awake.   But ACORN supporters probably told themselves that thefts and cover-ups by the leadership were relatively minor governance problems that did not and would not hamper or corrupt ACORN's substantive work.  That's how ACLU supporters frequently responded to compelling evidence of internal misconduct: characterizing repeated malfeasance as a series of "mistakes," they tended to dismiss as "tempests in teapots" or "inside baseball," controversies over "mistakes" like lying by the leadership or spying on staff or revelations that the executive director had quietly approved a government blacklisting agreement and, when he was caught, misrepresented the timing and substance of counsel's opinion regarding the agreement and the ACLU's potential criminal liability for non-compliance.  So I recognize the evasions and denials offered by ACORN supporters in the wake of the very serious embezzlement and cover-up scandals of 2008 that presaged the current scandal over the video sting.

Consider Peter Dreier's response to the theft and cover-up in the Huffington Post: In a lengthy piece dominated by praise of ACORN's "fight for social justice" and protests of right wing smear campaigns, Dreier excuses the "brilliant" Wade Rathke's decision to conceal his brother's embezzlement as mere misjudgment, attributed not to dishonesty or self-interest but brotherly compassion and concern for ACORN's reputation.  He writes misleadingly that the stolen funds were repaid, without noting that until the theft was revealed after 8 or 9 years, about 80% of it remained unpaid.  He laments that "Rathke's remarkable organizing work for almost 40 years will now have to be judged against this tragic example of poor judgment."  He characterizes the theft and prolonged cover-up as "missteps," stressing that they did not begin to compare to "swindles" by villainous corporations like Halliburton or Enron involving billions; (although it's obvious that the difference between the "missteps" at ACORN and the "swindles" at Halliburton is not measured in dollars but in partisan loyalties.) He notes that "progressive groups have to be squeaky clean. They must live by a higher standard...," as if only a unusually scrupulous organization with unusually high standards would prohibit and punish embezzlement.

Today, ACORN apologists persist in trivializing its offenses: The video sting is not a major story, mediamatters.org insists, suggesting that the real story is - what else - right wing scapegoating and "fear-mongering." Founder Wade Rathke still seems filled with sorrow, not remorse, noting that the "sneak films are too sad and painful for me to watch." ACORN is suing the video-tapers and distributors for violating state surveillance laws.

But, as Barney Frank cogently observes, "The defense against sting operations is not to ban them, but to behave properly so that they do not reveal as they did in this case clear evidence of gross impropriety."  Facing the cut-off of federal funds and the prospect of becoming politically untouchable, ACORN is, once again promising reform.  It has hired former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger to conduct the "robust, no-holds barred review" that should have been commenced at least a year ago, after the embezzlement scandal broke.  Harshbarger may recommend new internal structures and processes, but I suspect that reforming ACORN will require removing staff and lay leaders who have already demonstrated their lack of integrity.  New processes won't respond to a need for new personnel.  Indeed, if people involved in covering-up embezzlement and purging apparent whistle-blowers had a functional sense of honor or concern for ACORN's mission, they'd resign.

Whether or not ACORN recovers, this crisis of its own making should serve as a cautionary tale for other groups, like the ACLU, that consider themselves too pure to fail; but I doubt that it will.  Lying is a habit that's very hard to break, especially when people justify their lies in the service of a greater good.  Wade Rathke said he concealed his brother's embezzlement so as not "put a "weapon" into the hands of enemies of Acorn."  And, people who begin covering up the misconduct of others out of concern for an organization's reputation (as well as their fear of being ostracized,) inevitably end covering up for their own complicity, and perpetuating conspiracies of silence.   

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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