- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 8, 2009

An independent investigation commissioned by ACORN cleared the embattled organization of systematic lawbreaking on Monday, but recommended that it stop some of its political work and revealed serious management shortcomings.

Former Massachusetts Attorney General L. Scott Harshbarger said his 11-week investigation did not find a pattern of illegal conduct by ACORN employees who were secretly videotaped advising conservative activists posing as a prostitute and her pimp on criminal activities, including tax evasion and human trafficking.

The investigators report released Monday noted that the ACORN workers in the video were low-level employees or volunteers, not supervisors, and that the video footage made public had been edited. It did recommend that ACORN, or the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, hire an ethics officer.

“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,” the report said.

ACORN’s critics dismissed the report as a whitewash of events that prompted Congress to cut off federal funding to the group.

“An internal audit of ACORN conducted by the former attorney general of Massachusetts - a liberal Democratic partisan - has no credibility,” said Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, ranking Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. “Only an independent criminal investigation conducted by the FBI can be trusted to get to the bottom of the nationwide allegations against ACORN.”

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the report did not change what he called the reality that “ACORN has masqueraded as a charitable organization in order to fund and advance a partisan political agenda.”

ACORN touts itself as the nation’s largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, campaigning since 1970 on issues such as what it calls “living wages,” better public schools and expanding homeownership.

“The report is part vindication, part constructive criticism and 100 percent road map to the future,” ACORN Chief Executive Officer Bertha Lewis said,

She said ACORN’s leaders would review the reports nine recommendations, which included returning the group’s focus to its original mission of community organizing and abandoning its political work, such as the voter-registration drives that resulted in scores of voter-fraud charges during the 2008 presidential campaign.

The Harshbarger report said the mismanagement of ACORN stemmed from practices instituted by ACORN founder Wade Rathke, who stepped down in June 2008 after the disclosure that for eight years, he concealed a nearly $1 million embezzlement by his brother, Dale Rathke, then chief executive officer of the ACORN-related financial and accounting firm Citizen Consulting Inc.

Wade Rathke moved to a job as chief organizer of Community Organizations International, formerly ACORN International.

“The serious management challenges detailed in our report are the fault of ACORN’s founder and a cadre of leaders who, in their drive for growth, failed to commit the organization to the basic, appropriate standards of governance and accountability. As a result, ACORN not only fell short of living its principles, but also left itself vulnerable to public embarrassment,” the report said.

It called the hidden-camera controversy “an apt example” of pitfalls posed by poor management at ACORN, including a lack of training, a lack of procedures and a lack of on-site supervision.

ACORN has long weathered criticism from conservatives, who say the group skirts campaign-finance and election laws while promoting liberal causes and Democratic candidates, but the hidden-camera videos that first appeared on Internet sites in September badly bruised the group’s reputation.

Despite President Obama’s close ties to ACORN, the administration canceled plans for the group to work on the 2010 census and the Internal Revenue Service fired the group as a preferred tax-preparation service for low-income workers.

The videos were shot by conservative activist James O’Keefe, who appeared in the footage posing as a pimp, and was accompanied by a female colleague, Hannah Giles, posing as a prostitute. The pair received counseling at ACORN offices in Baltimore, Washington, New York and San Bernardino, Calif., to obtain a home loan for property where they could conduct a prostitution business, which they said also would employ “young girls” from El Salvador.

At the Baltimore ACORN office, for instance, a female worker advised them to conceal their illegal activities when applying for a loan or filing taxes.

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