Behind the ACORN Scandal - Ellis Cose

It's hard to imagine the scandal that has engulfed ACORN taking place in a less media-driven age. Two self-styled moviemakers, one playing a pimp and the other his whore, go to the community organization's offices on both coasts to seek help buying a home in which the woman can ply her illegal trade. No problem, says one ACORN worker after another; just set up a phony business that looks legit and we will help you realize your dream. (Click here to follow Ellis Cose)

It's eminently watchable video in the way that Jerry Springer is watchable. You view it with a mixture of in-credulity and disdain. Is it possible, you ask yourself, that people can be so obtuse? In this era when gotcha videos quickly go viral, the filmmakers have become instant superstars. And in short order, Congress voted to cut off ACORN's federal funding, the Census Bureau banned the nonprofit from working on the 2010 census, the IRS dropped the group from its tax-assistance program, Bank of America cut its ties, and politicians fell over each other running away from the organization.

So what are we to take from this weird story? No one is seriously suggesting that ACORN is now in the brothel business. And even ACORN is not defending the dimwitted staffers caught on tape, whom it fired.

The lesson for the organization's CEO, Bertha Lewis, seems to be that ACORN is the victim of a journalistic smear. "They go after the largest community organization in the country" and make it "a diversion to the failed eight years of the previous administration," charges Lewis. ACORN's employees, after all, committed no crime—"not one piece of paper was filed." Indeed, staffers in some offices had the good sense to throw the wacky couple out, but the "doctored" videotapes captured none of that.

For all its recent troubles, ACORN (which stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) has done a lot of good work. The group played a key role in getting relief to Katrina victims and in highlighting the issue of voter suppression. It has made homeowners of untold numbers of poor people. But it's easy to forget that when the organization seems awash in impropriety. Last year the brother of its founder was accused of embezzling nearly $1 million from the group. And then ACORN was accused (unjustly for the most part, it says) of voter-registration fraud.

Lewis, who was named CEO in the wake of the embezzlement scandal, acknowledges that ACORN's management system has been weak, but claims the organization was fixing that problem. "We were already doing some hard self-examination" when this latest scandal hit, she says.

That self-examination seems not to have gone far enough. To dismiss the actions caught on tape as just "a handful of folks who did not live up to our professional standards" (as Lewis does) is to gloss over the likelihood that their actions reflect a more systemic problem. In its essence, ACORN is a group of outsiders fighting against the powerful. If a bank takes people's homes, ACORN's first impulse is to urge them to take the homes back, even if that act of civil disobedience puts them on the wrong side of the law. Combine that impulse with a predisposition to identify with marginalized people (including prostitutes), and it's hardly surprising that the undercover filmmakers elicited a sympathetic response. Unfortunately, the staffers' misplaced compassion made them oblivious to the difference between right and wrong.

ACORN's defenders argue that any government money the group might have misused is minuscule compared with the waste and fraud perpetrated by huge contractors such as Halliburton—an argument that, though true, is beside the point, since Halliburton's credibility, unlike ACORN's, has little to do with its moral standing. Similarly, the question of whether the tapes were edited with prejudice is beside the point, since there is no approach to editing that would make aiding illegal-brothel owners OK.

The moral of this scandal is not that ACORN is composed of bad people, but that it's too forgiving of its own failings. That it's squarely in the sights of partisan holy warriors hungry for its scalp no doubt reinforces that tendency. But in the end, ACORN's ruin may not be the radical right, which can hurt its funding but can't take away its 400,000-plus members. Its biggest problem may be itself, and its inability to see its own potential.