Other side of Acorn story needs telling

Pablo Eisenberg
Pablo Eisenberg

Pablo Eisenberg

In one of their most cowardly and irresponsible actions in a long time, Senate Democrats joined their Republican colleagues in passing a measure to prohibit the use of federal money to support housing and community-development programs run by Acorn, one of the country’s major community-organizing groups.

And the House voted to end all federal support to the organization.

The latest controversy over Acorn began after Fox News broadcast videos filmed by two investigators who visited four local offices of Acorn.

The videos caught Acorn employees providing the investigators, one posing as a prostitute and the other as a pimp, with improper and unethical information on tax and housing issues.

Acorn, which was under fire for its voter-registration activities during the presidential campaign, says it was never asked before the vote by the Senate to give its side of the story or explain what it was doing to prevent future abuses. That Republicans voted unanimously to cut off any future federal support of Acorn was no surprise, but that all but seven Democrats in the Senate followed suit was a surprise, if not a shocking development.

They made no effort to hear Acorn’s side of the story, to discover whether the deplorable activities of the four offices were atypical or to learn what, if any, remedial actions Acorn was planning to take.

Goaded by the publicity and outrage fueled by Fox News and other conservative news outlets, they apparently took the safe and opportunistic path, not willing to risk what they felt might be political criticism despite following a reasonable approach.

That is not to say that Acorn, which has some 500,000 members, should be defended for its misdeeds. It should not.

Its founder’s brother embezzled almost $1 million 10 years ago, and though his family was slowly repaying the money, the organization did not make the problem public, even to many of its staff members.

It was not until last summer that news reports made the financial improprieties a matter of public record.

For many years, Acorn did not have sufficient oversight or mechanisms to ensure public accountability, especially in its regional offices.

Some of its voter-registration campaigns were sullied by staff members who submitted false registrants.

And its board did not exercise the due diligence that responsible boards should.

Yet the senators should not overlook the extraordinary work Acorn has done over the past 10 years to bring social and economic justice to minorities and low-income, working-class people throughout the country. It has:

  • Registered over one million Americans to vote.
  • Successfully led the fight for a living wage for poor workers in more than 100 cities.
  • Pushed banks to pour billions of new dollars into areas that previously didn’t get the loans they deserved.
  • Helped over 100,000 families become homeowners and many thousands of other families to forestall foreclosure.
  • Enabled formerly powerless constituencies to gain the power and influence to be a force in the policy debates in many states and localities.

If the senators had bothered to question Acorn, they would have heard that the organization has recently taken major steps to ensure greater openness and accountability, established a new board and a high-powered advisory board, hired an impressive new CEO, brought on new accountants and advisers, closed some offices, and fired staff members who were not up to par.

The organization now has announced it would admit no new clients to its programs that serve needy people and would start emergency training to be sure all of its staff members understand the organization’s procedures.

It also pledged to appoint an outside investigator with an impeccable reputation to conduct an independent review of Acorn’s programs to provide direct services to needy people.

Senate Democrats pounced on an easy prey, one that had made serious mistakes and incurred the wrath of conservatives, but that also represented poor and powerless people.

Why do these so-called protectors of the taxpayer not punish the big bankers and financiers responsible for the crash of our financial system, refuse to institute a new regulatory system for our financial institutions, fail to impose pollution taxes on coal-burning power companies and other major polluters that threaten our environment, and wink at the huge tax loopholes enjoyed by corporations.

Senate Democrats have dishonored the principles of fairness and rational decision-making.

Their spinelessness should give us pause about the way they will handle really tough issues.

Pablo Eisenberg is a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

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