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From ACORN, a mighty controversy grows

After the release of several videos highlighting atrocious behavior by some of its workers, the liberal advocacy group needs to clean house.

September 16, 2009

The videos, aired mostly by Fox News and other cable news outlets, are truly shocking: A pair of conservative activists posing as a pimp and a prostitute go to the offices of the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, pretending to be seeking assistance getting a loan to run a brothel. Their hidden camera captures ACORN workers dispensing such advice as how to create a fictitious business name, how to classify the business on tax forms ("performance arts") and how to handle the tax consequences of smuggling more than a dozen underage prostitutes from El Salvador to work at the facility (an ACORN worker helpfully advises them to write off the girls as "dependents").

Unfortunately for ACORN, this isn't the first time the liberal advocacy group has been in the news. It became a liability for then-Sen. Barack Obama during the presidential campaign after almost a third of the 1.3 million new voters it registered were rejected, in some cases because they were fraudulent. During one of the debates, Sen. John McCain questioned Obama's past relationship with the group, which Obama had represented as a lawyer in a 1995 lawsuit.

Given all the scrutiny, one would have expected ACORN to be doing everything in its power to make sure its activities were squeaky clean. Yet since the initial video was released last week showing ACORN workers in Baltimore who appeared to be aiding and abetting criminal activity, activist filmmaker James O'Keefe has released two more showing similar behavior at ACORN offices in Washington and Brooklyn. The response from ACORN? Fire the workers involved and blame Fox News.

"We are the boogeyman for the right-wing and its echo chambers," reads a self-serving statement released Saturday by ACORN's chief organizer, Bertha Lewis. She claimed the videos were "doctored" and threatened legal action against Fox. What she didn't do is apologize for the appalling and possibly illegal behavior of ACORN employees, acknowledge that the organization has serious internal problems and vow to correct them, or do what she should have done as soon as the scandal was revealed: resign.

O'Keefe's hidden-camera methods are distasteful, and the extent to which his videos were edited is unknown. Their content is nonetheless devastating to ACORN -- so much so that, on Monday, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to withhold federal housing funds from the group. That's a shame because ACORN does worthwhile work in poor communities, helping people avoid foreclosure, giving them tax help and, yes, registering them to vote. If ACORN is to survive and retain a shred of credibility, it needs to stop deflecting blame and clean house.

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