ACORN just got punk'd! Or maybe I should say pimp'd! As a result, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now can no longer collect federal funding. The Senate voted 83-7 to cut off Housing and Urban Development grants after two part-time ACORN workers in Baltimore - don't you just love it when our town makes national headlines? - were videotaped gleefully giving tax advice to a couple posing as a hooker and her pimp.
Only in Baltimore?
Alas, staffers in the Washington office of ACORN also got caught on video offering help for the fake hooker and pimp. Same in New York, so there goes our exclusivity.
Of course, ACORN defenders complain that the videotaping was made by right-wingers who hate what it does: register voters likely to support Democrats, help working-class people avoid foreclosure, help the poor.
No doubt ACORN has been a flash point of political controversy for some time, a favorite target of conservatives who are outraged that the organization gets taxpayer dollars for any of its activities. The Census Bureau has severed ties with ACORN. The organization's hiring practices have been criticized in the past, and it looks like the criticism was well deserved.
As for whether the ACORN videos were illegally made - secret recordings without Maryland's statutory two-party consent - that's almost laughable in the current political climate. There do not seem to be any rules in this arena anymore; a congressman wins praise for barking "You lie!" at the president while he gives a speech to a joint session, and people make all kinds of outrageous assertions on talk radio and television and the blogosphere every day. It's pretty much anything goes out there.
But, all that aside, I sense that these ACORN videos sent a little tremble through my community, so I want to address the most troubling aspect of this matter - that some people in the helping professions missed the earlier memo about aiding and abetting even the appearance of criminality.
Baltimore is a town full of well-run, nonprofit organizations that help the underprivileged, the homeless, the hungry and the addicted. Many of the men and women who run these organizations probably look at the ACORN video scandal and the Senate vote and wonder if such a thing could happen to them.
So here's my advice to nonprofits that want to avoid ACORN's fate:
1. Please use this occasion to instruct your intake workers in the ready identification of hookers and pimps.
a. Hookers are frequently scantily clad and they wear a lot of makeup; they may refer to themselves as "dancers" or "escorts."
b. Identification of pimps is more challenging; for the most part, they do not indulge in a lot of stylin' anymore. The cat in the ACORN video - the fake pimp - looked as if he'd just stepped out of a 1970 Cadillac El Dorado, with some sort of cape and walking stick. In the late 1970s, a guy in my downtown apartment building looked like that; he lived in the penthouse. Most modern pimps aren't as flashy anymore. Nonetheless, your staffers should be instructed to regard the pimp as the bossy guy standing next to the hooker at the intake desk.
2. Prostitution is illegal in most states. Therefore, you should advise your intake workers to from refrain from giving all but certain kinds of advice to hookers and the pimps who may accompany them to your offices.
Advice is allowed if:
a. The individuals claim they wish to end their illegal activities and get legitimate jobs.
b. Said individuals want help getting treatment for substance abuse.
c. Said individuals seek medical treatment for injury or disease.
The following advice is not allowed:
a. How to obtain tax credits for a house of prostitution.
b. How to avoiding paying taxes on income derived from prostitution.
c. How to smuggle Central American minors into the country for the purposes of prostitution.
I hope you find this advice helpful. It may seem obvious, but apparently some people didn't get the earlier memo.
Dan Rodricks' column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.