Ethics and Irony: the Postman Rings Twice for ACORN

“The Postman Always Rings Twice,” James M. Cain’s novel that is better known as a 1946 film noir classic starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, has a famous ironic twist. The story’s hapless drifter narrator escapes punishment for a murder he helped commit, but gets executed anyway for a death that was really an accident. Cosmic justice is done, if not legal justice. It turns out that the postman rang twice for ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, too.

ACORN, as you may have read, is close to defunct, the victim of too much exposure for an organization that wasn’t ready for prime time. It was a progressive urban activist organization, light on professionalism but heavy on dedication and energy, that used its local chapters to pressure city governments on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised. It brought out the troops heavily on behalf of Barack Obama in 2008, and immediately got its first bad publicity when it was revealed that ACORN workers registering urban voters had added many false and fictional names on the rolls. Republicans screamed voter fraud, but the truth was that the low-paid registration gatherers were paid by the name, and wanted to earn a little extra. But this was ACORN’s weakness, and the weakness of many activist organizations, a culture of loose oversight dominated by an attitude of “don’t sweat the little stuff, or let details get in the way of the big picture.”

ACORN was fueled by contributions and, once Democrats got a hold of the purse strings, government contracts and grants. Its sprawling and complex network of affiliates and related organizations allowed it to fudge the legal distinctions between non-profit organizations, which cannot engage in political activities, and lobbying organizations, which can. It was seen by Republicans as a committed Democratic Party ally, and once Obama was elected, their point of view was hard to contest.

In 2008, an ACORN whistleblower revealed that Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN’s founder, Wade Rathke, and an officer of the organization, had embezzled nearly a million dollars (later alleged to be as much as $5 million) in 1999 and 2000. Wade had covered it up, not only failing to inform the board, law enforcement officials and donors, but also, incredibly enough, keeping his brother in his job and on the ACORN payroll….for eight years! Needless to say, this cover-up, outlandish breach of fiduciary duty and irresponsible non-profit management would and should signal the end for any organization, but ACORN’s political allies managed to minimize the damage.

Then came conservative activist James O’Keefe’s bizarre “sting” operation, in which he and a confederate tricked (and videotaped) ACORN employees in various local offices into giving advice to a “pimp” and his “prostitute” on how to get government assistance for their illegal activities. The videos, showing O’Keefe in an absurd “pimp” costume right out of an old  sketch on “In Living Color,” went viral on YouTube, and reinforced an image of ACORN as a gang of ethically-bankrupt hustlers, just like the Republicans had been arguing all along. The Obama Administration distanced itself from the group, and Congress passed a (possibly unconstitutional) law banning ACORN from ever receiving Federal funds again.

The pimp stunt destroyed ACORN’s credibility, and political support and donations dried up. The organization’s national web site has been taken down, and chapters in other states are adopting new names, with many ending their long affiliations with ACORN. California ACORN, for example, is now Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and New York ACORN has become New York Communities for Change. Now, too late to make a difference, a dogged blogger has shown that O’Keefe’s videos were heavily edited, and that he did not, in fact dress like a pimp. (O’Keefe has already been exposed as a less than trustworthy activist, having been arrested for an attempt to operate another sting in the office of a U.S. Senator.)

Brad Friedman has convincingly proven that the videos were misreported by the press, and that they were so heavily over-dubbed and cut that they should not be accorded any credibility at all. There seems to be little question that some of the ACORN staffers gave embarrassingly wrong advice, and were disturbingly casual about suggesting fraud and strategies for supporting a criminal enterprise. Nonetheless, it is unethical and unfair to use manipulated and fraudulent evidence, even when what it purports to prove is true. Friedman is appropriately outraged that the press uncritically accepted the dishonest representations of O’Keefe, who, Friedman’s investigation shows, was not dressed as a pimp in the ACORN offices, although in media accounts his costume was a core element in showing the organization’s staff to be incompetent and corrupt.

On Friedman’s blog, he recounts his efforts to get the New York Times to correct its accounts of O’Keefe’s sting, and the response by the Times’ “public editor,” Clark Hoyt, is both revealing and alarming. When asked about one Times article,  following O’Keefe’s recent arrest for trying to “maliciously interfere” in the office of Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA), that described O’Keefe as having “made his biggest national splash last year when he dressed up as a pimp and trained his secret camera on counselors with the liberal community group Acorn,” Hoyt made an argument that could have been ghostwritten by Bill Clinton:

The story says O’Keefe dressed up as a pimp and trained his hidden camera on Acorn counselors. It does not say he did those two things at the same time.”

Wow.

In later correspondence, Hoyt admits that O’Keefe’s videos were unethical, but writes,

“…at the end of the day, whatever O’Keefe wore, he clearly presented himself to the ACORN employees in a pimp relationship with Hannah Giles. Unless you are prepared to contend that all of his comments captured on the tapes were dubbed in later, I think you have to acknowledge that he and the employees were talking about hiding money from prostitution, smuggling in under-age girls from abroad and even financing a political campaign with her earnings. The notion that the ACORN workers were somehow hoodwinked into believing that he was a college student trying to save his girlfriend from a life of prostitution — and that they were reacting out of sympathy — strikes me as a literally incredible effort to rewrite the obvious record.

Maybe so. Still, ACORN was done in by falsified evidence from a misrepresentation by an individual of demonstrable unreliability, evidence that would be thrown out of any court and that never should have supported a professional news story. Friedman is also correct that the Times owes its readers a correction, as do hundreds of other news organizations. To this day, it is still written that O’Keefe was disguised as a pimp, and the public is largely unaware that O’Keefe’s videos were edited to make the ACORN staffers look even more foolish and incompetent than they were.

In the end, however, justice was done. ACORN deserved to be put out of business for its cover-up of the Rathke embezzlement, but got its just desserts through an over-hyped conservative hit job. That’s not right, and it wasn’t ethical, but nobody should feel sorry for the organization. Its conduct showed that it couldn’t be trusted, and it was not worthy of taxpayer support.

The right result came about for the wrong reason, because the postman rang twice.

15 thoughts on “Ethics and Irony: the Postman Rings Twice for ACORN

  1. Pingback: Ethics and Irony: the Postman Rings Twice for ACORN « Ethics Alarms | Acorn Issues

  2. I’ll leave my various disagreements with your thoughts for a moment when I’m not forced to reply via iPhone 🙂 So for the moment just ringing in to note my last name is Friedman, not Frieman or Freiman as you variously spell it.

    Thanks either way for your honest assesment of my coverage, and of O’keefe duplicity, no matter where we may disagree on the other points in your piece 🙂

    • I apologize, Brad—I don’t know why that happened, because I was worried about misspelling your name from the second I found Bradblog. I know people with every conceivable variation of your name, and as I’ve mentioned here before, I have a phobia about “ie” combos. It will be fixed before you get off your iphone,
      I hope you could at least detect my admiration for your work; I wish I could have reproduced your whole exchange with Hoyt. Again, my regrets for the mistake; I look forward to your comments.

    • Addendum to my apology below, Brad (the wrongful spelling is fixed, I THINK): At least give me credit for being an equal opportunity misspeller. I put a superfluous “e” on Mr. Hoyt’s first name, but in contrast to his weird arguments regarding the Times’ errors, I have made a correction.

      • Thanks for correcting the misspellings (though it’s still wrong in your category tag for both me and Dale Rathke, FWIW).

        Have been on road until now, so wasn’t able to give you a proper reply to the other substantive points.

        I am no expert in what happened concerning the embezzlement issue, but I’m aware of some of the facts, and I’ll otherwise base my comments here on your own details.

        You report that, based on an ACORN whistleblower (one who, I understand, was fired by ACORN and carries a serious grudge, FWIW, even though that point is not mentioned in your article for folks to consider as appropriate), that Dale Rathke is said to have embezzled a million dollars from ACORN and, as you note, his brother, the founder of ACORN, “Wade had covered it up, not only failing to inform the board, law enforcement officials and donors, but also, incredibly enough, keeping his brother in his job and on the ACORN payroll….for eight years!

        You then go on to use that as the basis for your argument that ACORN, which helps some 400,000 low-income families in 75 different cities with important services, deserved to be put out of service for some reason.

        But my understanding is that when the board learned of the embezzlement, that they not only replaced the money immediately from private donors, but also removed the Rathke’s from the board and cleaned up the entire shop. Is that not so?

        And, if by your own account the other board members knew nothing about it, what is the basis of your argument that the entire organization should be put out of the business of helping the poor?

        Furthermore, are you similar arguing for outfits such as Blackwater — which likely receives more in a day from the federal government than ACORN has received in their lifetime — to also be put out of business? (Here’s just a few details on that: http://www.bradblog.com/?p=7696) And how about the other companies who receive billions of funds from the government even after they have admitted, or have been convicted of defrauding BILLIONS from the governement? Are you calling for them to put out of business as well? Companies like Blackwater, Halliburton, ExxonMobile, etc?

        If so, where are you articles calling for that?

        If there is any other reason that you believe ACORN should be put out of business, it seems you failed to note them in your article. The only other reason I could assume — other than nefarious, political partisan reasons — would be in regard to allegations of “voter fraud” by the group. Those allegations, of course, are completely baseless, as there has never been a shred of evidence that anyone improperly registered by an ACORN worker has cast a fraudulent vote from that registration. Moreover, almost all of the voter REGISTRATION fraud committed by a tiny few of their registration workers (eg. In 2008 they had some 13,000 of them) have actually been turned in to officials BY ACORN THEMSELVES after discovering the fraud via their rigorous verification of each and every registration.

        ACORN had nothing to do with it, and did not, as you write in your article, have “loose oversight dominated by an attitude of ‘don’t sweat the little stuff, or let details get in the way of the big picture'” to my knowledge, unless you have information to demonstrate otherwise.

        Seems the organization should be applauded, rather than condemned for those efforts. And you may also contrast it with Republican voter registration firms, actual organizations, mind you, not rogue employees, who have been found to have committed voter regisration fraud, destroyed thousands of Democratic registrations, etc.

        For the record, you also incorrectly assert that in 2008 “low-paid registration gatherers were paid by the name, and wanted to earn a little extra.” They were not paid by the name. That is incorrect. Though the GOP firms I mentioned (see, for example, Young Political Majors) did exactly that. It’s not necessarily illegal to do so in most states, as I understand it, but the point is, ACORN didn’t do as you report.

        I’d offer more but I don’t have time for now. Suffice to say, it sounds as if you are suffering from the same misinformation on many of these points as Clark Hoyt. It’s hard not to be, given the massive disinformation campaign that’s been going on for years by the GOP trying to undo ACORN. Nonetheless, you should confirm your facts, and/or offer independently verifiable links to more information, if you are going to make the type of argument you’ve made in the article above.

        I do, however, as previously noted, appreciate the kind words you offered for my work.

        • Dear Dale: Responding to point in italics:

          Thanks for correcting the misspellings (though it’s still wrong in your category tag for both me and Dale Rathke, FWIW).

          Arrrgh. I fixed those too. And I’ve been so much better on typos lately!

          You report that, based on an ACORN whistleblower (one who, I understand, was fired by ACORN and carries a serious grudge, FWIW, even though that point is not mentioned in your article for folks to consider as appropriate),

          So what? Nobody has denied what was reported. The fact that he had an axe to grind would only matter if his facts were in question, and they aren’t.

          You then go on to use that as the basis for your argument that ACORN, which helps some 400,000 low-income families in 75 different cities with important services, deserved to be put out of service for some reason.

          Of course. A group’s corruption isn’t mitigated by its good intentions or good deeds. A non-profit that doesn’t tell its donors or law enforcement officials about a theft is by definition untrustworthy. It’s too bad about their good works: they should have operated responsibly. This is no argument, Brad, just a rationalization.

          But my understanding is that when the board learned of the embezzlement, that they not only replaced the money immediately from private donors, but also removed the Rathke’s from the board and cleaned up the entire shop. Is that not so?

          Obviously they did not “clean up the shop,” or the O’Keefe mess wouldn’t have occurred at all. Besides, they didn’t do anything voluntarily, they were forced to by public scrutiny. Wade Rathke, who was supposed to get lost, kept his hand in. What happened with Dale was a larger problem of organizational culture, and cultures aren’t fixed over-night.

          And, if by your own account the other board members knew nothing about it, what is the basis of your argument that the entire organization should be put out of the business of helping the poor?

          What?? It’s res ipsa loquitor: if a non-profit’s governance is so loose and dysfuntional—WHY didn’t they know? Didn’t they ever look at the financials? The 990? The budget? This didn’t meet minimal standards of fiscal oversight and governance for a $100,000 a year community theater group, and you think they should have kept getting million dollar grants because their hearts were in the right place? Ridiculous.

          Furthermore, are you similar arguing for outfits such as Blackwater — which likely receives more in a day from the federal government than ACORN has received in their lifetime — to also be put out of business? (Here’s just a few details on that: http://www.bradblog.com/?p=7696) And how about the other companies who receive billions of funds from the government even after they have admitted, or have been convicted of defrauding BILLIONS from the governement? Are you calling for them to put out of business as well? Companies like Blackwater, Halliburton, Exxon Mobile, etc?

          Now you’re just ranting. I am talking about ACORN and only ACORN, which is a non-profit organization and subject to different standards. None of the for-profit companies you describe ever conspired to hide a million dollar embezzlement, but if they did, they could conceivably survive by doing their work and earning money. Non-profits have to be trusted because people give them money based on representations of competence. Sure, any company that is shown to defraud the government should be banned from government contracts. Sometimes they get second and third chances because they provide unique services, like Halliburton, but that is a mistake.

          If so, where are you articles calling for that?

          Excuse me? Where is the rule that says I have to write about every corrupt organization if I write about one? ACORN was in the news because it was closing shop in Baltimore, hence the post. I’ll write about the others when and if its appropriate, meaning there’s anything to say. I didn’t write much about Enron, either, because any fool could tell it was a corrupt organization. But some people (la la la la) seem to think ACORN’s good works make it immune from the same ethical standards other 501 C(3) groups have to meet. They don’t, sad to say. So I write about ACORN.

          If there is any other reason that you believe ACORN should be put out of business, it seems you failed to note them in your article. The only other reason I could assume — other than nefarious, political partisan reasons — would be in regard to allegations of “voter fraud” by the group. Those allegations, of course, are completely baseless, as there has never been a shred of evidence that anyone improperly registered by an ACORN worker has cast a fraudulent vote from that registration. Moreover, almost all of the voter REGISTRATION fraud committed by a tiny few of their registration workers (eg. In 2008 they had some 13,000 of them) have actually been turned in to officials BY ACORN THEMSELVES after discovering the fraud via their rigorous verification of each and every registration.

          Sorry, the cover up and lack of board oversight IS enough, and whatever was genuine in O’Keefe’s videos showed poor field oversight and support my conclusion as well. I agree with Hoyt in that one aspect of his “defense.” The video’s were unethical, and tainted, but there’s still stuff on them credibly damaging to ACORN. I don’t see how you can dispute that, frankly.

          ACORN had nothing to do with it, and did not, as you write in your article, have “loose oversight dominated by an attitude of ‘don’t sweat the little stuff, or let details get in the way of the big picture’” to my knowledge, unless you have information to demonstrate otherwise.

          With great respect I say this, Brad, but you’re deluded. I see organizations like ACORN on a smaller scale all the time, frozen in early stage loose task-oriented organization, and they always fall apart, have scandals, implode. The culture was unprofessional and never became professional.

          I applaud you for working so hard to correct the record, and that’s valid for its own sake. However, as someone who teaches ethics in law, non-profit governance and accounting, I feel it is crystal clear that ACORN was corrupt (non-corrupt organizations don’t hide embezzlements for years—heck, most CORRUPT organizations don’t either!) and could not be trusted with federal funds or private donations. That’s my main message. There is ample evidence of cultural dysfunction; if you don’t think the response of some of the employees to O’Keefe proved lousy oversight, swell; I think that’s a desperate position.

          Thanks for expanding the discussion, and again, terrific work on an excellent blog.

  3. I’ve occasionally wondered if the same idea was true for OJ Simpson. I was always hoping that he wasn’t convicted just because he eluded justice the first time if he was truly innocent of this new charge. Too many people seemed so happy for any chance to incarcerate him.

    (If this doesn’t make sense, I apologize. I got up early today because my shade was open and let in all that accursed sunshine.)

    • I think O.J. was clearly guilty of the second offense—it was on tape, after all. I also believe that he would have been acquitted had it not been for the murders, or certainly given a lesser sentence. It’s not exactly “The Postman.” but it’s close.

  4. I never knew he dressed up like a cartoon pimp. I guess I just assumed he dressed like Terrence Howard in “Hustle and Flow”.

  5. Just a helpful (maybe) tip: your hyperlink is messed up on the novel, it only covers the ‘l’.

    Ignore this if you intended that. I just think this whole ACORN thing proves something I heard you write once, that the truth is the truth regardless of who says it, even attack dogs like O’Keefe.

    • P.S: When are you going to do something about all this spam in the comment boards? Every post or so, I see a comment that’s nothing but a link to someone else’s site, with the red flag: “see more here”.

    • Thanks—that was an error, fixed now.
      I agree with your last statement, but the fact that unfair/unethical tactics yield the truth doesn’t justify the tactics, and the fact that an unethical tactic uncovered the truth doesn’t mitigate the wrong thereby discovered.

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