Yesterday, ACORN filed suit against James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles - the pair who posed as pimp and prostitute in a video that damaged the organization's reputation - as well as Andrew Breitbart, on whose website the videos were shown.
In Maryland, recording a conversation requires two-party consent, so ACORN is arguing that the Baltimore video was illegal. Alan Z. Schwartz, ACORN's general counsel, told the New York Times, "the group was not only seeking monetary damages, but also to 'look into the planning and background and funding for the activities that went on by O'Keefe' and have the full, unedited set of videos come to light."
While no one speaking for ACORN has attempted to defend the employees shown advising O'Keefe about tax evasion, prostitution and child smuggling, one assumes that the full set of videos would reveal a lot more ACORN staffers throwing him out, as Katherine Conway Russell did in Philadelphia, and downtown L.A. employees say they did last summer. According to the L.A. Times, "When the woman refused an offer to be taken to a battered women's shelter, the staffers dismissed the incident as a 'joke' and asked the pair to leave." Not realizing that the "joke" was part of a large-scale effort to embarrass ACORN nationally, the L.A. office didn't think to warn anyone else in the organization. Says Nathan Henderson-James, ACORN's online organizer, "It was failure of imagination, and failure of cynicism."
Ben Smith at Politico writes, "I'm not sure of the P.R. value of suing without challenging the substance of the videos," but my guess is, the suit itself isn't about PR. It's about holding people accountable for these efforts to play gotcha with national organizations that are the targets of conservative ire, by turning over countless rocks until they find an employee stupid or evil enough to do something unforgivable and/or illegal. Yes, those employees should be rooted out and shitcanned — something ACORN doesn't dispute — but the practice of recording the bad apples in order to, as Schwartz puts it, "destroy an organization whose principal purpose is to help poor people" is pure sleaze. And where it's illegal sleaze, it should be challenged.
As for turning the PR around, ACORN is working on that in other ways. It's hired former Massachusetts attorney general Scott Harshbarger to conduct a thorough investigation to find and make public any other "weak spots" within the organization, according to the Washington Post. CEO Bertha Lewis preemptively "notified the Internal Revenue Service on Monday that ACORN would shut down its free tax-help clinics for low-income people, a partnership with the IRS, until an external review of ACORN's work" — two days before the IRS formally cut ties with ACORN. The employees seen on the videos have of course been fired and unequivocally denounced, and in Los Angeles, at least, the staff is only inspired to work harder. "They haven't hurt us like they think they did," member Daniel Leary told the L.A. Times. "Our anger makes us more focused. Now we know the mission at hand." Meanwhile, Politico reports elsewhere that "the group is launching a charm offensive on Capitol Hill, as its Washington lobbying shop has been quietly meeting with sympathetic congressional offices, reminding them that ACORN's services help low-income residents of urban areas."
That's the thing we all need to keep in mind, no matter how outraged we are — and damn well should be — about what happened on those videos. ACORN leaders are apparently doing their best to handle the situation with integrity and transparency, but they're not the ones bearing the real cost of the scandal. As Lewis told the Post, focusing the group's resources on damage control and shutting down some services until they can be vetted "doesn't hurt us financially. It does hurt the poor people we have served for many years."
Acorn Sues Over Video as I.R.S. Severs Ties [NYT]
ACORN Sues Over Damaging Video [Washington Post]
ACORN circles the wagons [LA Times]
ACORN, on offense, sues filmmaker [Politico]
ACORN fights back [Politico]