A Bad Seed?

Our View: Videos Show Acorn Needs To Shape Up If It Wants To Achieve Its Mission

September 13, 2009

The video sounds like a satire: A young man and woman, dressed as caricatures of a pimp and prostitute, walk into the Baltimore office of ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and spin an outrageous story about how the woman needs help buying a house to set up as a brothel for underage Salvadoran girls - and rather than kick them to the curb, two volunteers give them advice on how to avoid paying taxes on their illicit enterprise. But it's not satire. It's the work of two conservative filmmakers, James O'Keefe, 25, and Hannah Giles, 20, who, in Ms. Giles words, saw ACORN as "a thug organization getting my tax dollars." After the secretly recorded video was made public last week, ACORN fired the two workers.

What does this incident prove? To ACORN's many detractors, it is incontrovertible evidence that the organization is a vast and immoral criminal enterprise. To ACORN's supporters, it just shows the lengths that conservatives will go to in an effort to discredit it. The group's chief organizer in Maryland, Stuart Katzenberg, called the stunt part of a coordinated campaign by Fox News against ACORN and said he is looking into whether the taping violated Maryland's strict laws against recording a conversation without both parties' consent.

The episode certainly suggests that the two ACORN employees shown in the video displayed astonishing stupidity and an utter lack of moral sensitivity. The pair don't bat an eye at the story Mr. O'Keefe and Ms. Giles tell, including the part about the human trafficking scheme. (One of the workers suggests listing the girls as dependents for tax purposes.)

Does it show a wider problem with ACORN? Mr. Katzenberg said the same pair of filmmakers was turned away at other ACORN offices, but that defense got weaker Friday when a second video surfaced showing the pair going through a similar act at the Washington ACORN office. In that case, the workers gave Ms. Giles advice on how to incorporate a business to conceal the real nature of her livelihood. It also didn't help to hear Baltimore ACORN board chairman Sonja Merchant-Jones tell WJZ-TV, "We've investigated, and we found nothing that [the ACORN workers] did to be illegal. Absolutely zero."

ACORN's stated mission, to help low- and moderate-income families by advocating for a higher minimum wage, more affordable housing, better public schools and restrictions on predatory lending practices, is certainly laudable.

And some of the misinformation floating around the Web about the organization is way off. Some are claiming that ACORN is getting billions from the federal stimulus plan; in fact, according to an analysis by House Minority Leader John Boehner's office, the group and its many affiliates got $53.6 million in federal funds from 1994 to 2008 - most of it, for what it's worth, during the Bush administration. (So far, Mr. Boehner's office hasn't found any evidence that ACORN has gotten stimulus funds.)

But even the most charitable appraisal of ACORN would have to conclude that the organization has some major problems. ACORN was the subject of widespread complaints during the 2008 election that its workers were turning in duplicate, incomplete or fraudulent voter registration forms, and just last week ACORN turned in 11 of its own workers who are accused of falsifying hundreds of such applications in Florida. In Baltimore, an ACORN protester was arrested this year when he broke the padlock on a foreclosed home. And now this.

If the organization is serious about fulfilling its mission of helping the disadvantaged, it needs to straighten up and fly right. ACORN may claim it's being unfairly singled out, but somehow, other grass-roots advocacy groups don't have these problems. The longer ACORN treats them as isolated incidents or the work of rogue employees, the more it hurts its own cause.

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