ACORN and the Ethics of Leadership

Reactions to former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger's report on ACORN have been predictably partisan. On the left, progressive leaders praise the report for dispelling right-wing myths about ACORN as a criminal enterprise, stressing that Harshbarger exonerated its staff of "intentional, illegal conduct" in the embarrassing, videotaped counseling sessions that prompted Congress to de-fund ACORN. On the right, Harshbarger's report is dismissed as a cover-up, commissioned and financed by ACORN (reported to have declined revealing Harshbarger's fees.)

It's not surprising that both sides focus on the charges and counter-charges that followed from the sensational video sting, many of which have yet to be resolved: ACORN is challenging the constitutionality of its de-funding and the legality of the secret videotaping -- as far as I can tell, its claims have merit. But I'm less interested in what Harshbarger reveals about the edited videos than what he implies about the competence and conduct of ACORN's current leadership.

Before the video scandal, ACORN was embarrassed by an embezzlement scheme, exposed in July 2008 by New York Times reporter Stephanie Strom (I discussed the embezzlement here). It involved the theft of close to a million dollars by Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke and what the Times described as a decision by "a small group of executives" to conceal the theft "from almost all of the group's board members and not to alert law enforcement."

Thievery is rarely surprising, but its apparent cover-up by organizational leadership (for nearly a decade) is a bit of a shock. Harshbarger references the embezzlement and 8 year cover-up, (which he blames solely on Wade Rathke). He adds, however, that ACORN's "reform leadership" includes Rathke era hold-overs who bear some responsibility for previous abuses:  "The reform leadership, many of whom also served in the Rathke era, is now reaping what Rathke sowed, in combination with the fall-out from their own failure to question or challenge him, and their inability to transform ACORN quickly and completely after taking over"  (emphasis supplied).

It's worth noting that you have to read Harshbarger's report carefully, in its entirety, to find this unsettling reference to current ACORN leaders. Their reported role in ACORN's messes has been ignored by the AP account of Harshbarger's findings, as well as by ACORN supporters, and obscured by the press release from Proskauer, Harshbarger's supposedly independent law firm. Proskauer misleadingly states that his report "squarely places blame on ACORN founders and credits reform leadership with making some gains in recent years," adding, inaccurately, that the report blames "Wade Rathke and certain former leaders" for ACORN's failures. Again, Harshbarger blames current leaders, as well.

But, having implicated unnamed and unnumbered "reform" leaders in ACORN's mismanagement, Harshbarger does not explore essential questions about the extent of their complicity in previous transgressions and how or whether they should be held to account. What precisely did their failure to challenge Wade Rathke entail? Were members of the current leadership involved in the decision to conceal his brother's embezzlement?  Did they act out of weakness or bad faith? Were they otherwise complicit in managerial misconduct?  Do they deserve to continue in leadership positions and are they ethically fit to do so?  Harshbarger doesn't say.

Instead, in his December 7th statement, he expressed confidence that "ACORN's current leadership understands full well what must be done," and his report  focuses on recommending a series of "managerial and governance" changes: They include a refinement of ACORN's mission (a return to "community organizing and citizen engagement empowerment") and basic structural reforms, such as establishment of a not for profit advocacy, educational, fund raising (501(c)(3) organization and a separate (501(c)(4) lobbying arm; recruitment of independent board members and an "independent ethics officer."  He stresses the importance of "organizational self-policing" and generally recommends what students of not for profit governance will recognize as basic, best practices (that ACORN's leaders apparently ignored entirely).

Harshbarger's advice seems sound and necessary, but maybe not sufficient. Organizational integrity and effectiveness depends on more than systematic checks and balances; it depends on the ethics of individual leaders. While praising the Harshbarger report for its diligence and thoughtfulness, Bill Josephson, former head of the New York State Department of Law Charities Bureau, observes that -- in addition to the financial resources necessary to implement reform -- ACORN's success will depend on "the quality, expertness and diligent commitment" of new independent board members and whether these new fiduciaries "will actually govern ACORN or be governed by the staff who largely acquiesced in ACORN's dominance by its founder."

Unethical individual behavior is the hardest, most unpleasant problem for consultants and would-be reformers to address: it often involves or appears to involve subjective judgments (even if those judgments rest on dispositive, objective evidence of dishonesty), and it generates heated personal conflicts. Processes are impersonal and more readily quantified, (and I don't mean to dismiss their importance). But focusing on process reforms can be a strategy for avoiding personnel changes. I don't know whether successful reform of ACORN requires new leadership. I can only wonder if those current leaders who failed to stand up for the integrity of the organization in the past are the right people to guide it into the future.