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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

ACORN: The Politics Of Poor Choices

This is not in defense of ACORN, and I want to be clear about that. A 40-year-old community organization with 1,200 chapters across 40 states and more than 400,000 member families should have more principle, professionalism and savvy than several of its employees apparently demonstrated recently in at least five different cities. And since those counseling sessions were videotaped, the evidence of incompetence has been memorialized.

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Above: ACORN official David Lagstein goes on-the-record about concerns for the organization's reputation after an undercover filmmaker caught an ACORN employee giving instructions for smuggling humans across the border. The editors discuss.

If you’ve missed the national stir over those videotaped meetings, they were recorded by two conservative activist filmmakers, James E. O’Keefe III, 25, and 20-year-old Hannah Giles, who dressed up as a pimp and a prostitute. The two visited ACORN offices in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., San Bernadino and National City, asked for advice, and secretly documented the encounters on tape.

In the East Coast offices, the phony pimp and prostitute wanted help on buying a house for their business while avoiding providing tax information to the IRS. In National City, they looked for help in smuggling prostitutes across the border. The stories and the exchanges in each city differ somewhat, but the theme is the same: a clear attempt by O’Keefe and Giles to seek and receive ACORN’s help with their pretend sordid enterprise.

In at least one case, the scenario constructed by the filmmakers was so ludicrous that it’s almost impossible to believe that the counselors could be naïve enough to fall for the ruse. Here the pimp who identifies himself as a graduate student at Johns Hopkins and protests that he needs to save money for a congressional campaign. And the prostitute, when asked about possible tax deductible business expenses, explains that maybe buying condoms would qualify as such an expense.

No question that ACORN has lost funders, credibility, and supporters. Its detractors are recalling concerns over irregularities in 2008 voter registration signups solicited by the organization. Local and state authorities have begun investigations, and Republican leaders are encouraging the probes. But election irregularities have not grabbed public attention the way these evocative videotapes have.

So now, ACORN is beginning the long, expensive, and not necessarily successful road to establishing its credibility and worthiness. Millions in support from government, foundations, and individuals are most likely vanishing. Political vulnerability could be fatal. If ACORN wasn’t a household word before, it’s fast becoming one for all the wrong reasons, and that’s not to its advantage. So, although it may be too late, it looks as though the nation’s largest grassroots community organization is preparing to do what it should have done from the beginning: conduct audits into its systems and processes, and more urgently, screen its employees for the smarts and integrity needed to deal with raw human situations and train, train, train its field personnel.

Click the audio player below to listen to KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner on These Days explain the problems facing the social activist group ACORN.

Audio

An organization that's been a target of right-wing criticism for a long time has now been hit with a major scandal. KPBS Political Correspondent Gloria Penner explains the problems facing the social activist group ACORN.

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