Wednesday, July 9, 2008

From A Tiny ACORN, Scandal Grows

Vice in the cathedral.
That term came to mind upon learning that ACORN, one of the nation's most influential community organization groups, is reeling from a case of embezzlement. More troubling, ACORN's leadership made matters worse by covering up the problem for years and now is sitting on its hands waiting for the scandal to pass.
Dummies.
Today's New York Times tells the sordid tale, so I won't get into all the details except to note that a trusted employee (funny how embezzlers are always trusted)walked off with a cool $1 million about eight years ago.
That's not the worse of it. Upon learning of the shortfall, ACORN's executive leadership keep this nugget of news to itself, never telling board members about the scandal and--get this--not bothering to tell the cops.
While embezzlement is bad, it can happen anywhere and any place. I've long believed that when anyone has unfettered access to other people's money, there's potential for abuse. That's why organizations--even do-gooder groups like ACORN--should be aggressively audited by outside accountants.
But where ACORN really screwed up is in its failure to come clean and tell the world.
ACORN argues that it stayed mum out of fear that its enemies would use the embezzlement against the group in the court of public opinion. ACORN, which stands for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is feared and hated by many corporate adversaries and some so-called conservative politicians, who despise its tactics when protesting in behalf of higher living wages, minority rights and improved health care. (In Chicago, ACORN opposition is one the reasons Wal-Mart has not been allowed to expand. Even the former community organizer and presidential hopeful Barack Obama has been slammed by some blogs for his earlier ties to ACORN.
I don't always care for ACORN's aggressive approach. But over the years I've seen ACORN play an important role in improving affordable housing for minorities and addressing other neighborhood grassroots issues.
But in this case, ACORN'S hypocrisy can't be ignored.
Imagine the fuss ACORN would have raised if one of its corporate targets or politicians had embezzled and then hid under a rock. Shouts of "Fraud!" and "Dereliction of Duty!" would have accompanied ACORN's protests, which would also include demanding the ousters of those responsible.
Right now, ACORN's leadership is content to sit tight and risk its organization's credibility and financial backing. Organizationally, its response to this scandal has been a minor reshuffling of the ACORN leadership deck.
That's not enough. Anyone who knew of the shortfall and stayed quiet is complicit. For the greater good of the organization, they gotta go.
Failure to sweep the place clean will only haunt ACORN, raising huge doubts about its judgement and managerial ability. Going forward, any protest it embarks upon will be tainted by its inability to handle this scandal.
And then there's the issue of money.
As a nonprofit, ACORN must procure funding from outside agencies and individuals. But ask yourself: After ACORN's bumbling of this situation, who will gleefully plow cash into a group that fails to come clean?
For decades, ACORN has held itself up as a protector of the poor and working class, providing a voice for those who increasingly don't have one in the halls of power.
To continue that sacred mission, Acorn must stamp out the vice in its own cathedral.

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