Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Fall of ACORN

I don't even know what to say.

I've criticized ACORN in the past. Lord knows I don't think much of ACORN. They're a decent organization with some significant flaws.

But I never thought they would be capable of criminal behavior. The New York Times today ran a story that suggests otherwise.

Acorn chose to treat the embezzlement of nearly $1 million eight years ago as an internal matter and did not even notify its board. [...]

A whistle-blower forced Acorn to disclose the embezzlement, which involved the brother of the organization’s founder, Wade Rathke.

The brother, Dale Rathke, embezzled nearly $1 million from Acorn and affiliated charitable organizations in 1999 and 2000, Acorn officials said, but a small group of executives decided to keep the information from almost all of the group’s board members and not to alert law enforcement.

(Emphasis mine.)

"Embezzle" is a nice word that means "steal." They covered up a theft of a million dollars for nearly a decade. That's criminal behavior, folks. That's fraud. Every time they requested a grant, they were lying about their finances. Every time they knocked on someone's door and asked for money, they were lying about where the money was actually going. It was going into the pocket of the founder's brother.

“It was a judgment call at the time, and looking back, people can agree or disagree with it, but we did what we thought was right.”

With all due respect to Maude Herd, ACORN's president - this was not a judgment call. This is not money that belongs to ACORN. They're a non-profit - they are accountable to their members and to the public. They had no right to conceal this. They have a public trust that they violated, and that they have been violating on an ongoing basis for nearly a decade.

Embezzlement is one thing. It's impossible to stop someone who has access to funds and misuses them. It's possible to limit the possibility of fraud with careful supervision and rigorous checks and balances. (This clearly didn't happen in this case.)

But once a crime happens, they had an obligation to report it to the authorities. And I believe they had an obligation to report it to their funders, including their members. This would have been the most transparent, responsible response to the crime. They didn't do that. They did exactly the opposite. Like they say, it ain't about the crime, it's about the cover-up. The cover-up is what's going to kill ACORN.

There are millions of nonprofits in the world and many of them are doing heroic work with little to no money. ACORN has brought shame upon them all with their selfish, cowardly behavior. If they don't survive this scandal, I won't shed any tears at their funeral.

One more thing that must be said: conservatives and others are going to use this as an opportunity to bash ACORN - and by extension, every social justice-minded nonprofit in the country. This was exactly the reason that Rathke (Wade - the one who didn't directly embezzle $1 million) cited in concealing the theft. (So Mr. Chief Organizer - now that it's become public, and now that it's also come to light that ACORN concealed it for eight years, you think this makes you look better?)

ACORN has opened itself up to massive criticism, but the conservatives are going after it for the wrong reasons. Working for social justice for low-income families is a noble pursuit and should be celebrated. Fraud has nothing to do with ACORN's mission. This didn't happen because of ACORN's mission - it happened because of the greed of Dale Rathke and the unconscionable acts of a few organization insiders. This is a people problem, not a mission problem. Do not be confused.

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