By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 17, 2009; A03
Amid a firestorm of criticism from both sides of the political divide, the community organizing group known as ACORN announced Wednesday that it would launch an independent review into "the indefensible action of a handful of our employees" who were secretly videotaped while giving advice to actors posing as a pimp and prostitute on how to buy a home and start a brothel.
The announcement by Bertha Lewis, ACORN's chief executive, came on a day when her organization's actions were strongly condemned by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and days after conservative members of Congress called for a complete cutoff of federal funding for the group.
Lewis said she was ordering a halt of new entrants to the liberal organization's service programs effective immediately, a retraining of the front-line staff in its nationwide offices within 48 hours and a meeting of an advisory council that includes former Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and former housing and urban development secretary Henry G. Cisneros no later than Friday to review the system that was "called into question" by the video circulating on YouTube and conservative Web sites.
"We have all been deeply disturbed by what we've seen in some of these videos," Lewis said. "I must say . . . we will go to whatever lengths necessary to reestablish the public trust."
The announcement was a reversal of ACORN's counteroffensive immediately after the videos first aired on a Fox News program last week. In the video, a man, James O'Keefe, 25, and a woman, Hannah Giles, 20, strolled into ACORN offices in Baltimore; Brooklyn; San Bernardino, Calif.; and the District, posing as a pimp with a cane and a scantily clad prostitute and saying they wanted to buy a home and run it as a brothel.
ACORN workers were recorded as they offered advice on how the couple could skirt federal laws to buy a home and how to cloak the status of underage "sex workers" the actors said they wanted to employ.
O'Keefe, a self-described filmmaker, and Giles, the eldest daughter of a conservative Christian minister in Miami, visited ACORN offices in the summer. An ACORN spokesman said they were turned away in Miami, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, where workers called police and filed a report. But workers welcomed them in the other cities.
Giles is a journalism novice who has written two columns for the conservative Web site Townhall.com. Her father, Doug Giles, serves as minister of the ultra-conservative ClashChurch near Miami, where he proclaimed that liberals "spit on the Word of God," according to a report by the Miami New Times.
Earlier, Lewis said the videos were part of a relentless conservative attack. Conservatives were trying "to destroy the largest community organization of black, Latino, poor and working-class people in the country," Lewis said. "I cannot and will not defend the actions of the workers depicted in the video, who have been terminated. But it is clear that the videos are doctored, edited and in no way the result of the fabricated story being portrayed by the conservative activist."
At the White House on Wednesday, Gibbs said that "obviously the conduct that you see on those tapes is unacceptable." More than 100 House Republicans signed a letter to President Obama urging him to cease federal funding for ACORN. On Wednesday, House Republicans introduced a "Defund ACORN Act."
Cisneros approved of ACORN's change in posture.
"I believe an organization that's performing a public function should be transparent about how it uses government funds," he said, noting that he still supports the group.
"It also points out some gaps in the monitoring and procedures," he said. "It's no defense to say it's an attack when there are gaping holes."
Jonathan Garthwaite, editor in chief of Townhall.com, said he believes ACORN's survival is at stake. "I think they see their entire organization at risk," he said.
"They've blamed the messenger," said Mike Gonzalez, vice president of communications for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Today I saw the first hint that they are going to take this seriously."
The video was a major strike for conservative Republicans who for years have accused ACORN of voter-registration fraud during presidential elections. The group came under increased scrutiny in the 2008 election because of the candidacy of Obama, who once worked for a group affiliated with ACORN and who worked for ACORN as a lawyer.
Kennedy Townsend downplayed the criticism. The former lieutenant governor said she will help advise ACORN "because they're under an enormous attack by Fox. . . . But ACORN is critical to the well-being of thousands of people across the United States. . . . We have to make sure we're above suspicion, and that we're going to do the right thing."
Staff writer Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.