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Covering Up for ACORN

The newly released "independent" review of the ACORN undercover prostitution video saga gives dirty meaning to the notion of whitewash.

By 12.8.09

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The newly released "independent" review of the ACORN undercover prostitution video saga is a breathtakingly audacious work of fiction.

There is hardly a word of truth to be found anywhere in the document's 47 pages. The report unveiled yesterday by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger is an all-you-can-eat buffet of lies and distortions that faults ACORN only for poor management practices.

No wonder those who organized the news teleconference yesterday kept the event so brief. The call lasted just 36 minutes, an amazingly brief period considering the level of public interest in ACORN's ongoing scandals and the complexity of the issues involved. Within that, the question-and-answer session was barely 23 minutes long.

Only five reporters were called upon and four of them lobbed softballs. One of the so-called reporters was actually politics professor Peter Dreier of Occidental College, a consultant to ACORN who wrote a report blaming the media for the group's woes. In "First They Came for ACORN," one of Dreier's over-the-top Huffington Post op-eds, the radical academic likened ACORN critics to Nazis.

Although I joined the electronic queue to ask a question, the teleconference was abruptly cut off after John Fund of the Wall Street Journal asked a series of tough questions.

Nonetheless the conference call was revealing.

It examined Harshbarger's report, which lays the blame for ACORN's myriad institutional shortcomings almost entirely on former chief organizer Wade Rathke. The document focuses on the hidden-camera videos in which James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles posed as pimp and prostitute. In those videos, ACORN employees across the nation offered the couple detailed advice on how to break the law and not get caught.

Harshbarger, a former president of the liberal group Common Cause selected by ACORN to aid in damage control, shrugged off the employees' behavior.

"While some of the advice and counsel given by ACORN employees and volunteers was clearly inappropriate and unprofessional, we did not find a pattern of intentional, illegal conduct by ACORN staff," he wrote.

In a conference call ACORN chief organizer Bertha Lewis gloated about how the report exonerated her group. Coming on the heels of her Oscar-worthy National Press Club speech in October in which she not only depicted ACORN as an innocent victim but also as a whistleblower that tried to nip the subprime mortgage crisis in the bud, Lewis told some brand new whoppers.

She said, "ACORN's leadership is pleased that this evaluation shows that even the low level employees did not engage in any illegal activity or seek to encourage it."

Reporters participated in listen-only mode in the teleconference Monday so the sounds of robust laughter did not disrupt the press event.

Anyone who watched the videos knows that ACORN employees bent over backwards to advise O'Keefe and Giles on how to defraud the U.S. government, obtain government money under false pretenses, engage in money laundering, smuggle illegal aliens into the country, and facilitate child prostitution.

The only reason the employees didn't participate in the schemes they devised was that O'Keefe and Giles never followed through. We'll never know with perfect certainty, but does anyone seriously believe that most of the ACORN employees shown in the videos didn't want to follow through?

One helpful staffer offered to help the couple claim the child tax credit for underage prostitutes from El Salvador. One worker offered the couple a discount on tax preparation fees for the prostitution business. One told them how to hide undeclared income by burying it in a tin can.

The report also gets creative, arguing that ACORN and ACORN Housing are completely separate entities.

ACORN Housing is the ACORN network's largest affiliate. As such, it functions as a kind of automated teller machine funneling grants and loans through the ACORN empire. The gigantic cash machine that is ACORN Housing has taken in the bulk of the $53 million in federal funding that the ACORN network has received since 1993.

The Harshbarger study describes ACORN Housing as "a separately incorporated organization (not a subsidiary or affiliate) with which ACORN contracts for homebuyer and foreclosure programs."

This is, of course, patent nonsense.

ACORN frequently plays a game of corporate musical chairs when it gets into trouble. When an ACORN affiliate does something admirable, ACORN emphasizes the ties it has to that affiliate. When an affiliate does something infamous, ACORN plays dumb and its byzantine organizational structure allows it to claim plausible deniability. It's always been this way.

To avoid public scrutiny, ACORN recently scrubbed its website of its "allied organizations page." In October last year it listed ACORN Housing near the top of that page, noting that ACORN "established" that organization "in 1986 to build and preserve housing assets." The ACORN website also listed ACORN Housing as an affiliate in a "sister organizations" list.

Elizabeth Kingsley, ACORN's lawyer, described the relationship between ACORN Housing and ACORN in an internal legal memo last year.

ACORN Housing may very well want to be independent of top-down control by the ACORN headquarters, but it's not. Kingsley noted that ACORN Housing (AHC) has complained before about being dominated by ACORN headquarters.

Kingsley criticized ACORN for "thinking of all these different corporations as part of the family." ACORN affiliates "have wanted to maintain that they are not 'affiliated,' 'related,' or 'controlled' by or with each other, for various legal purposes, while allowing actual control to be exercised in a highly coordinated manner."

She faulted ACORN for "trying to pretend that these groups are not connected to one another." She also noted in a passage about political activity that "ACORN lacks the protective walls needed to ensure that various types of activity are kept sufficiently separate."

So what's changed on an institutional level in the year and a half since Kingsley wrote her memo? It's not at all clear from reading the Harshbarger report.

Moreover, tax liens currently pending against ACORN Housing provide more proof that it is run by ACORN headquarters.

Currently, 25 tax liens pending against ACORN Housing list the organization's address as 1024 Elysian Fields Avenue, New Orleans, Louisiana, the former funeral home that until recently served as ACORN headquarters. Those 25 tax liens were issued by California, Indiana, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

Yet ACORN Housing says its home address is 209 West Jackson Boulevard in Chicago, Illinois. Perhaps tax collectors in all six states have it wrong.

There are even more financial ties between ACORN Housing, ACORN, and the rest of the ACORN network.

ACORN Housing has paid ACORN affiliate Citizens Consulting Inc. (CCI) $2,928,027 since 1997. CCI is the financial nerve center of the ACORN network. Money disappears into the CCI vortex never to be seen again.

ACORN Housing also lends money to other members of the ACORN network. For example, in its Tax Year 2007 tax return, ACORN Housing discloses lending $1,477,451 to ACORN and other ACORN affiliates. The return also discloses a loan of $119,509 from ACORN Housing to ACORN.

Surely Harshbarger knows these things, yet he seems unembarrassed to associate himself with this report that whitewashes the activities of a radical advocacy group-turned organized crime syndicate.

That's how important ACORN is to the left and the Democratic Party. It's not going away any time soon.

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About the Author

Matthew Vadum is an award-winning investigative journalist at a conservative watchdog group in Washington, D.C. Vadum is also author of Subversion Inc: How Obama's ACORN Red Shirts are Still Terrorizing and Ripping Off American Taxpayers.