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Monday, December 7, 2009

The Harschbarger Report

The internal report issued by former Massachusetts Attorney General is out. Clearly, here's what the headline will be.

The high-profile lawyer hired to investigate ACORN has found no pattern of intentional illegal conduct in the community organizing group -- a finding that was dismissed as "damage control" by one of the two filmmakers who, posing as a pimp and prostitute, videotaped staffers offering advice on how to operate a brothel .

This was immediately mocked by conservatives in the media.

Harshbarger has determined — wait for it — that ACORN engaged in no wrongdoing
depicted in the nationwide undercover stings conducted by / James O’Keefe III and Hannah Giles.

In fact, everyone is getting into word games here. ACORN did in fact engage in no criminal wrongdoing by offering advice to a "pimp" and "prostitute" about how to hide assets and their business practices. Simply offering such advice is not illegal. If that's what Harschbarger was brought in to do, I could have saved everyone plenty of time. In fact, if that's what he was investigating, then it's clear they gave him a scope that would lead to a conclusion that would maximize their positive press. In fact, these videos occurred at no less than five offices. That's a pattern of behavior for which management, and no merely those on the videos, must take some responsibility for. That's at the heart of the series of exposes by Giles and O'Keefe. It's not about whether or not the behavior on the videos is or is not technically legal. It's about what it says about an organization when a "pimp" and "prostitute" can so routinely walk into just about any office and be offered advice that the advisor knows is illegal if implemented.

In fact, the report has put more blame on former chief organizer, Wade Rathke, than on current leadership. The report itself is full of contradictions and equivocations, and to me, that's a sign of a report that has as its agenda more than simply getting at the truth.

For instance, the report points out that ACORN has taken "significant steps toward financial reform and protection of whistleblowers" since Rathke's dimissal. Yet, both Karen Inman and Marcel Reid were dismissed from the board when they insisted on continuing their own investigation into ACORN in October of last year. Is this the example of progress of the protection of whistle blowers?

It also says the group has made progress on financial reform. Of course, all those that have been screaming about reform at ACORN have all demanded the same thing, a full, independent and forensic audit of the books of ACORN. That has still not happened so how much reform has there been?

The report also lists 9 separate reforms. In fact, most of these reforms were themselves recommended by Reid, Inman, and ACORN 8 before and after their dismissal. So, again, how serious is the group about reform if they are dismissing the very people truly trying to reform it?

The first reform is to "return ACORN to its core competency of community organizing and citizen engagement." Here's what the front page of ACORN 8 says.

ACORN is not living up to its original mission; and that is to give meaningful voice and empower low and moderate income members of society

Yet, ACORN 8 isn't even mentioned in the report even though the recommendations largely mirror those they've recommended.

The report also recommends that "ACORN should develop a simplified structure of two entities". On this, I have some confusion. After all, when I interviewed Wade Rathke, that's exactly what he said ACORN now has.

(Rathke) told me the structure of ACORN is different than the structure of COI. ACORN, according to Rathke, was one corporation while COI was a federation.

So, in fact, the structure of ACORN is supposedly exactly what the report wants it to be. Yet, this contradiction is never addressed. Clearly, the report found a much more sophisticated structure than what Rathke and the current leadership claim that ACORN is. In fact, what the report calls "separate but interrelated" entities (ACORN Housing, Project Vote, etc.) the folks at ACORN would say are entirely separate organizations that merely partner up with ACORN on projects of mutual interests. That's also exactly what Rathke told me he considered ACORN Housing. In fact, the problem isn't the structure of all these "interrelated but separate" entities, but a total lack of a firewall between them.

ACORN and ACORN Housing are supposed to be two separate organizations. They have separate boards, management, and finances. Yet, it was Bertha Lewis that was on television defending the behavior of employees of ACORN Housing. So, while the report say they are separate entities, the report never addresses the fact that these separate entities dont' seem to have any substantive firewalls.

For instance, in the first "pimp" and "prostitute" video, the employee not only offers the two housing and tax advice but then attempts to sell them on an ACORN membership. ACORN Housing has no members. There are no membership dues. That's only something that ACORN does. So, why is an employee of ACORN Housing selling ACORN memberships? That's like a used car salesman driving you to the local electronics store and then selling you a television.

Then, the ninth recommendation was "ACORN should form a national advisory board to report back in six months with...progress of reform". That's exactly what Karen Inman and Marcel Reid lead when they were summarily fired.

All of these contradictions are never addressed all while the report congratulates ACORN on taking substantive steps toward reform. Meanwhile, when I asked Wade Rathke for comments he wanted to make sure that three things were clear 1) he hadn't read the report 2) he was never contacted for the report and 3) he's been gone for nearly a year and a half. It's interesting that the report mentions him so often then. In fact, Rathke's name is mentioned nearly as prominently in relations to breakdowns and problems as the current management. So, the report is willing to blame Rathke without contacting him. The report did in fact contact no less than 200 individuals in preparation but, according to Rathke, he wasn't one of them.

Here's what Rathke said when he was informed that he was mentioned prominently in the troulbes of ACORN.

(it's a) little hard to connect me to the candid camera stuff and the vr problems
after i was long gone. furthermore, after i left they decentralized management which directly contributed to a lack of oversight in these areas which have now caused so much grief and heartache for ACORN members.


I care deeply about ACORN and its members and the importance of the organization as a voice for low and moderate income families in our country. if blaming me were sufficient to solve all of the problems faced by the organization now, i would be more than delighted to gratefully bear full responsibility, so the organization can once again move forward as an effective vehicle and voice for its members in these desperate economic times for low and moderate income families and their communities.

That mirrors what Rathke told me in minimizing his own role in their current troubles in our second interview. He told me that if it had occurred a month after he left that would be one thing but it's happening about a year and a half later. I'm of the opinion that Rathke minimizes his own role in a mostly self serving manner, but, if you're going to issue a report that's scathing in its criticism of his leadership while at the helm, there's no excuse for not interviewing him. It's as though the report was looking to make him a scapegoat.

This report may provide some PR value for ACORN but it does little in the way of offering any meaningful ways to substantively reform ACORN.

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