America

ACORN Workers Cleared Of Illegality By Outside Probe

ACORN, the community organizing group which found itself embroiled in the latest of several controversies after some of its workers were recorded providing advice to a couple posing as a pimp and prostitute, was cleared of illegality in the matter by the former Massachusetts attorney general.

But Scott Harshbarger, the lawyer ACORN hired to conduct a review, criticized the organization for bad management which it said contributed to the ACORN's problems. A major problem, he said, was that the organization grew too quickly, neglecting training of its workers and other essentials.

An excerpt of Harshbarger's report:

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. This hidden camera controversy is an apt example.

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; in fact, there is no evidence that action, illegal or otherwise, was taken by any ACORN employee on behalf of the videographers. Instead, the videos represent the byproduct of ACORN's longstanding management weaknesses, including a lack of training, a lack of procedures, and a lack of on-site supervision.

Harshbarger provided ACORN with nine recommendations:

1. ACORN should return its organizational focus to its core competency —
community organizing and citizen engagement empowerment, with related
services — and transition away from the provision of services that may be
provided more effectively and efficiently by others.

2. ACORN should consolidate, simplify and centralize its local and national
organizational staffing, monitoring and supervision.

3. ACORN should develop a simplified national organization and board
structure consisting of just two entities — a 501(c)(3) for charitable, non-profit
fundraising, advocacy and education with a majority of independent members,
and a 501(c)(4) for support of ACORN community organization and political
activity, with at least one-third independent members.

4. ACORN should continue to implement the comprehensive internal
governance program and strategy, including internal controls, compliance and
codes of ethics, designed to educate and guide staff, volunteers and board
members, that was recommended and has been adopted within the past year.

5. ACORN should recruit an independent ethics officer and/or independent
inspector general to oversee and implement the governance and compliance
program at the national level, and an independent member of the national
board should chair a board-level ethics and governance committee.

6. ACORN should hire an appropriately qualified and experienced chief
operating and financial officer, comptroller and in-house auditing staff.

7. ACORN should continue to strengthen its legal capacity to guide its
governance reforms, coordinate the dissolution of all extraneous ACORN
organizations and represent the organization's interests in litigation and
investigations.

8. ACORN should require all of its state and local affiliates to agree to oversight
by the national staff and board, and to adhere to appropriate national
standards, including financial audits, training and supervision.

9. ACORN should formalize a strong, independent national advisory group and
charge it with the responsibility to report within six months, and thereafter
annually for two years, to the national board on the progress of the reform action plan.

After the videos by a conservative videographer went viral on the Internet, Congress passed legislation to prevent ACORN from receiving federal funding. ACORN is suing the federal government on the grounds that the legislation is an unconstitutional "bill of attainder" since it targets for punishment an individual group. ACORN fired some of the workers caught on video.

ACORN welcomed the report as an important step in its redemption. In a statement, ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis is quoted as saying:

"The report is part vindication, part constructive criticism and 100% roadmap to the future," ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis said.

"ACORN's leadership is pleased that this evaluation shows even the low-level employees portrayed in the videos did not engage in any illegal activity or seek to encourage it," Lewis continued. "Mr. Harshbarger was tough but fair in examining where ACORN has been and what we still need to accomplish in having the most effective possible organization to represent the interests of the communities we represent—low and moderate income, African American and Latino families across America."

It's unlikely the Harshbarger report will silence the group's conservative critics, however.

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