Burying ACORN

Liberals still don't buy the Bush administration's explanation for the Abu Ghraib scandal — that the humiliation and torture of prisoners at the Iraq facility was the work of a handful of misguided U.S. troops, not the result of a culture and policies put in place by those higher up the chain of command. Yet many seem willing to accept a strikingly similar defense by leaders of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now following an attack by the right.

After a lame attempt at damage control, ACORN announced last week that it was disbanding. That's bad news in the short run for those whose homes and schools it has saved, but in the long run the surviving splinter organizations could emerge stronger than ever — if they learn from the mistakes made by ACORN's leaders.

ACORN was never the evil liberal cabal that fired the imaginations of conservatives and inspired vicious attacks in right-wing media outlets. Despite hysterical allegations from the likes of Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who issued a report in July that called ACORN a "criminal conspiracy" engaged in "systemic fraud," little evidence of illegal activity by the organization has emerged amid multiple investigations. Moreover, during the course of its 40-year history, it has empowered low-income communities by organizing voter registration drives and improved neighborhoods by performing a host of support services.

Yet ACORN's management problems were clear long before last summer, when a pair of conservative activists posing as a prostitute and her boyfriend secretly videotaped ACORN employees at several offices around the country giving them outrageous tax and housing advice. This came after an embezzlement scandal involving the brother of the organization's founder (whose family agreed to repay $1 million), and ill-organized voter registration drives that encouraged staffers to turn in bogus signatures.

The wise thing to do in the aftermath of the videos would have been to acknowledge these failings, apologize and clean house, with resignations or firings at the management level. Instead, ACORN chief Bertha Lewis fired the employees who appeared in the videos and went on the attack, blaming conservative activists and the mainstream media. This despite an independent analysis ordered by ACORN that, while clearing the group of criminal wrongdoing, was harshly critical of its "long-standing management weaknesses, including a lack of training, a lack of procedures and a lack of on-site supervision."

ACORN is vanishing, but many of the state and local organizations affiliated with it will survive. If they want to grow from a tainted seed into something greater, they need to change more than their names.

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