The past few years have been catastrophic for ACORN, but not for the reasons most people think. The trouble depended long before James McKeefe dressed up in his Pimps Я Us outfit and started harassing local offices.
ACORN has had a long and troubled history. I first learned about them when I got involved in grassroots organizing at the beginning of the last decade. Shortly after I became an organizer, the local ACORN office was facing a strike from its own "organizers" (their term for canvassers). They complained that they were working in unsafe conditions and not being paid fair hourly wages.
The ugly situation peaked when ACORN strikers picketed outside the Seattle Labor Temple while ACORN management was attending coalition meetings inside. It all ended after a NLRB ruling, a large settlement for back pay, the firing and replacement of the local office's manager, and the personal involvement of Wade Rathke, ACORN's CEO ... oh, pardon me, Chief Organizer.
Rathke, of course, was the center of a much larger scandal in 2008. A firestorm erupted when it came to light that his brother, who was also on the salary of ACORN, had embezzled somewhere around a million dollars, or possibly more. (The true amount has never been publicly revealed, to the best of my knowledge.) Most companies, faced with a massive embezzlement, would call the FBI or the police. But not ACORN, and not with the incestuous nature of the crime. Instead, they buried the story. A funder (apparently Drummond Pike, leader of the Tides Foundation) paid off the debt to ACORN and made a hush-hush payment arrangement with the criminal Rathke brother. Only a select few board members ever knew about the secret, until the New York Times blew the whistle in July 2008.
Afterward, Rathke attempted to explain why he would try to hide something this outrageous. They - notably Rathke, the founder, CEO, and public face of ACORN - said that revealing the crime would put a "weapon" in the hands of its opponents. But the cover-up revealed something much worse - no one was watching the books at ACORN. They had failed the most basic test for nonprofits - they weren't keeping a close eye on their finances.
Funders notice when things like this happen, and they reacted swiftly to the news. By the fall of 2009, several major funders including the Ford Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Bank of America and JPMorgan had all ceased their longstanding support of ACORN. ACORN was sending out panicky fundraising letters with language like "We need your help to survive."
By the time the videos started surfacing, ACORN was already on the way down. O'Keefe was beating a dead horse. It's possible that ACORN's crippled position made it easier for O'Keefe to get into multiple office. But O'Keefe did not destroy ACORN.
Republicans have been trying to make the name ACORN toxic since at least 2004. James O'Keefe did some serious damage with his creatively edited videos and his wild stories. (Note that no crimes have ever been charged in connection with the videos, except against O'Keefe himself.) They were the final straw. But ACORN's back had been broken long before.
What actually brought it down was its own poor decisions and malfeasance. If you want to blame someone for the collapse of ACORN, blame its founder. Blame the man who became convinced that he could do no wrong, the man who created the house of cards and who blew it down. Wade Rathke built ACORN, and Wade Rathke deserves the blame for its collapse.
And it's a damn shame. ACORN has done some monumental work in its history: fights against payday loan sharks, predatory lenders, redlining, fights for affordable housing. They were a mighty force for good, but in the end, like so many great organizations, the hubris of its leader brought it low. If we are fortunate, other powerful nonprofits will step in to take on the work that ACORN is no longer able to do. We will not be better off without ACORN in the world.