ACORN Fights To Clear Name After Sting Operation
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, reports of the sexual abuse of prisoners by guards is on the rise, according to a new study by the Department of Justice. We'll talk with the inspector general from the Justice Department about this in just a few minutes.
But first, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, ACORN. It's picking up the pieces after suffering a major blow last week. It all started the week before last, when a young conservative activist and filmmaker put on some crazy outfits and visited ACORN field offices across the country.
Hannah Giles posed as a scantily clad prostitute called Kenya(ph). James E. O'Keefe III, posed as a pimp, who said he was planning on employing under-aged illegal immigrants from El Salvador as sex workers. They turned to ACORN employees for advise on how to evade taxes and secure a mortgage for a house that would serve as a brothel. And they secretly recorded the exchange with ACORN staff.
Unidentified Male #1: What if they're making money because they're performing tricks too.
Unidentified Female #1: If they're making money and they're underage (unintelligible) nobody know anyway.
MARTIN: Not surprisingly, the undercover videos went viral sparking condemnation from Republicans and Democrats alike. And last week, Congress voted to cut off federal funding to the organization. Conservatives, who've long accused ACORN of shady voter registration efforts among other improprieties, used the scandal as proof of the organization's poor practices and lack of legitimacy.
I'm joined now by ACORN's Chief Executive Bertha Lewis, who's been with the organization for 16 years. She's with us from her office in Washington. Welcome, thank you for joining us.
Ms. BERTHA LEWIS (Chief Executive, ACORN): Oh, thank you for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: You had a few days now to assess what happened and think about what to do next. But for those who have not been following the story, I just want to bring people up-to-date. As we mentioned, these young filmmakers, one of whom is a conservative activist made these videos at ACORN offices in California, Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and New York. I'm just going to play a short clip from the video from Baltimore, where an ACORN worker is giving O'Keefe some advice about how to avoid taxes on the underage sex workers they say they plan to employ. Here it is.
(Soundbite of video clip)
Unidentified Female #2: The tax part, you could cover yourself on that, you could issue them 1099s.
Mr. JAMES O'KEEFE (Investigative Journalist): But they're not even legal citizens.
Unidentified Female #3: Well, I mean couldn't they, like, if I am a performing artist…
Unidentified Female #2: Okay, now if they don't have a Social Security numbers?
Mr. O'KEEFE: Right.
Unidentified Female #2: Then you don't have to worry because they can't file taxes.
Unidentified Female #3: So they can just be like…
Mr. O'KEEFE: What are they supposed to do about them? We don't have to worry about them?
Unidentified Female #2: You don't have to worry about them. Not unless they're going to get - if they're going to go and get an ID - federal - sorry, if they're going to get a Social Security number even for working.
Mr. O'KEEFE: Well, they're like 15.
Unidentified Female #2: Oh, well, then you don't worry about them.
MARTIN: I just want to mention, we called Mr. O'Keefe several times to try to get some understanding from him about what motivated him to make these videos. We were not able to reach him, but Ms. Lewis, I wanted to ask you, what was your first reaction when you saw this?
Ms. LEWIS: Oh, Michel, it was shock. It was outrage. It was disgust. I immediately terminated all those people that you saw in those tapes. Whatever they did was stupid, but it was indefensible. None of them lived up to our professional standards, and so I took swift action to make sure that this never happens again. I also made sure that we stopped all walk-ins.
I'm at the meeting with my staff to do an internal review, so that we can make sure about our controls. I condemn this even if it was one minute, which we know was doctored and highly edited tapes, it doesn't matter. What it did for us was to show that some of our people have some weaknesses. We don't have to talk to everyone. But here's the most important thing, Michel, for the audience, not one application, tax return, not one shred of paper was ever filed for these folks. And that means that our controls, which is a 10-step intake process actually did work.
But be that as it may, in a way, I want to thank these folks even though they committed an illegal act because you can't tape someone without their knowledge in several states. But regardless, we want to make sure that ACORN employees and everything is done to the highest professional standards.
MARTIN: I'm sorry, Ms. Lewis, you said that these employees have weaknesses. What weaknesses do you think this exposed?
Ms. LEWIS: I think what it exposed was this, that everyday we serve thousands of people that come into our office seeking help and advice when they have not been able to get it in other places. I think the weakness is that when these folks came in claiming that this woman had been beaten and abused, there was nowhere else to turn, couldn't we please help them because they were turned away, that our employees said okay, we're not going to judge you, let's sit down.
However, in other offices the police were called and that was the right thing to do. You've got to exercise common sense. So, we want to make sure that everyone, everyone knows the protocol, and that we have a check and balance. No one could have possibly thought that something like this could happen. So, you know, you have to guard against the unknown, but regardless.
MARTIN: I - I want to emphasize the point that you made. You said that there were several offices in which the - notably Philadelphia, where the workers called the police when these two…
Ms. LEWIS: Exactly.
MARTIN: …made clear what their plans were. But what about the people who, I'm sorry, what about the people who seem to be enabling this behavior? Do you think is there - do you think that there is an issue of there are no moral standards or you think this is an issue of the employees just have the point of view that their job is to help whoever walks to the door? I mean, what would be - I hear people say, well, more training is needed. Do you really need training to tell people that you don't enable people to hire teenagers as prostitutes?
Ms. LEWIS: Well, when you run an organization, what you need to do is to make sure that everyone knows your standards and everyone is trained to understand how to do intake. I think, in the end, most of these employees just felt like, well, I have to talk to whoever comes in here. However, that cannot trump common sense and also it cannot trump someone going to their supervisor and saying this is unusual, what do I do?
So, in any case, though it's indefensible, that's why I terminated everyone. And I am making sure not to take this lightly. My board was outraged, and I think I owe it to the other employees that did the right thing. It's just a handful of folks out of hundreds and hundreds of employees. And again, in a lot of offices these folks were turned away, told never to come back. In Philadelphia, as you say, the police were called. But not one piece of paper was ever, ever processed for these folks. And I'm going to make sure that this type of situation never happens again.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, forgive me, Ms. Lewis. If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Bertha Lewis. She is the CEO of the National Community Of Activist Group, ACORN. And we're talking about these videos that went viral showing ACORN workers in a few offices dishing out tax advice to a conservative activist and a filmmaker posing as a pimp and a prostitute. And they suggested that they were seeking advice on getting mortgage assistance so they can operate a brothel.
Now, you know this, that ACORN has long been a target of conservatives, particularly around your voter registration efforts. Then last week, 11 individuals who worked for ACORN registering voters in South Florida were arrested. They apparently or allegedly fraudulently registered almost 900 voters including, in one case, the late actor Paul Newman. Now granted your organization was the one that found the fraud, but does it suggest that conservatives, critics are correct to some degree that there is either a lack of internal controls or something endemic to the organization that continues to allow these problems?
Ms. LEWIS: Our internal, our critics are absolutely incorrect. What this showed is we turn those people in, we turn those cards in way back in June and it took this long for the authorities to get around to indicting them. We flagged and tagged every single card because you've got to turn them in. We've cooperated with authorities across the country. Our internal quality control was bar none.
We registered 1.3 million cards. So, therefore, all we're saying is this is proof positive that our system works. And as you will recall a few weeks ago, the emails of Karl Rove absolutely showed that the White House under George Bush was specifically targeting us and David Iglesias, one of the U.S. attorneys, was fired because he said I have investigated their voting registration operation. There is no fraud.
However, we have been targeted since 2004. Why? Because we're effective, we managed to move at least a million people that have been previously disenfranchised to the polls. I think we are a threat because when you make sure that poor people, low income people, minority people have a voice at the voting booth on local issues, then those politicians and especially Republicans have to contend with that. So, because we are so effective, they've targeted us. But you know what we believe, Michel? We believe that no one…
Ms. LEWIS: …should be registering people. We believe that government should be registering folks automatically.
MARTIN: Okay. Be that as it may, Ms. Lewis, we have only a minute left. I wanted to ask how do you go forward from here. As we mentioned, the House and the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans, voted overwhelmingly to cut off your funding, which is rather less than was advertised in these conservative videos but nevertheless it's several million dollars. What do you do next?
Ms. LEWIS: Listen, our work has gone on for 40 years. We're going to continue to keep people in their homes and we're going to continue to make sure that folks are protected and that poor people have a voice. We've been doing it for 40 years. They can try to cut off our funding, but we are a membership organization, and I'm sure that once all the facts comes out, our funding will be restored. We're going to keep fighting.
MARTIN: Bertha Lewis is the CEO of the national community activist group ACORN. That stands for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now and she joined us from her office in Washington. Ms. Lewis, thank you for speaking with us.
Ms. LEWIS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Coming up, we'll hear more about the history of groups like ACORN and we'll hear about a group that gets little attention, prisoners who've been victims of sexual abuse by guards. Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine is with us.
Mr. FINE (Inspector General, Department of Justice): While the officer might initially say no, once they have engaged in those sexual relations with the inmate, the inmate can threaten to report them and can extort them to bring in this contraband. That affects everyone in the institution.
MARTIN: That Behind Closed Doors conversation is coming up next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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