Videotapes showing workers at a liberal advocacy organization dispensing tax advice to a couple posing as a pimp and a prostitute have sounded alarms among Maryland nonprofit groups, which acknowledge they could be vulnerable to similar tactics.
"It's a general warning to everybody," said Peter Sabonis, chief counsel for Maryland Legal Aid. "It wouldn't surprise me if we've had enemies of our program come in here in all of our offices and try to show we're violating our congressional restrictions and using our money illegally."
Still, Sabonis and other nonprofit organization leaders say they have taken no particular precaution to avoid getting caught in sting operations like those that snagged workers at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, known as ACORN.
Activist filmmaker James O'Keefe and a friend, Hannah Giles, posed as a pimp and a prostitute and visited several ACORN offices, asking for advice on how to shield income from taxes. They also talked about bringing underage girls into the country to work as prostitutes.
O'Keefe videotaped conversations he had with ACORN employees in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, N.Y, where one employee was heard telling the couple that they should launder money. Four employees have been fired, including two in Baltimore.
The release of videotapes last week has caused a furor in Washington and beyond, with the House of Representatives voting 345-75 Thursday to deny federal funding for the group. Representatives Elijah E. Cummings and Donna Edwards, both Democrats, were the only members of the Maryland delegation to vote against the measure. The U.S. Senate adopted a similar ban Monday.
The Census Bureau, meanwhile, also has severed its ties with the group for the 2010 national census.
Republicans have urged federal officials to go further by launching a comprehensive investigation of how ACORN spends and manages federal money.
On Thursday, the Maryland Senate Republican Caucus called for Gov. Martin O'Malley to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate ACORN dealings in Maryland. The governor has declined to do so, saying ACORN receives no state money.
Meanwhile, Maryland groups that work with the poor and immigrants say they are trying to be careful that they are helping those who truly are in need.
"I can't say that we're better than ACORN and that we can never be duped," Sabonis said. But he added, "It's so mind-boggling that someone can talk about human trafficking and no bells would go off."
Dennis Murphy, program manager for Our Daily Bread Employment Center, said he believes much of what his organization does in feeding those in need, helping people find jobs and housing or filling out their tax returns is not likely to be targeted by political activists.
"People come to our meal program, we ask no questions, we feed you," Murphy said. "In terms of the employment thing, we're helping people create resumes and look for jobs; I guess anybody can fake a resume."
Given the center's proximity to the city jail, Murphy does conduct criminal background checks. Murphy said that he would call police if he learned someone was involved in criminal activity.
Sabonis said years ago, when his organization was allowed to represent illegal aliens, migrant workers from the Eastern Shore would occasionally show up to complain about the way they were being treated and would ask to help get their back wages.
Sabonis said that it hasn't happened the past few years, in part because of restrictions placed on what type of services Legal Aid can provide as well as the political climate of the country. "There's so many other enemies that the right has put up there," Sabonis said. "It's just a matter of time before we get back into the crossfire."
But the stings don't just come from the right. In 1994, former city Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson, now in charge of the Howard County health department, went into drug treatment centers around the city posing as a heroin addict. Beilenson went to four clinics and contacted 23 others and said that he was treated badly at most of them.
Jeff Singer, the president and chief executive officer of Health Care for the Homeless, said that Beilenson's undercover operation was a wake-up call for the way he ran his organization and that safeguards were put in place after it was made public.
"There's a list of questions that new folks are asked: 'Are you homeless?' If the answer is no, we'll find them a place to go. If the answer is yes, we'll ask them a few more questions. 'Where did you sleep last night? Do you have a regular address? Where do you get your mail?' " Singer said. "None of that is 100 percent foolproof. But at least we do have structures in place."
Paul Clolery, vice president and editorial director of the NonProfit Times, a business publication covering the industry, said that staff training is the key to conducting good business, particularly for social service agencies or voter rights organizations.