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Latest Developments in ACORN Story

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Carol Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2009; 2:00 PM

Post government accountability reporter Carol Leonnig took your questions about her interview with ACORN founder Wade Rathke and the latest on the investigation of the community organizing group.

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Woodbridge, Va.: So the Congressional Republicans engage in a little harmless demagoguery to attack ACORN and in the process pass legislation that will bar Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, GE, Halliburton, Blackwater, and just about every other defense contractor from receiving any government funds. This sounds like a great trade off. Obama should sign the bill ASAP.

Carol Leonnig: Hello everybody. This is Carol Leonnig. I'm a reporter at the Post on our National desk and I'm looking forward to hearing your questions on the many new developments on this ACORN story. So let's get rolling.

First in the queue:

Dear Woodbridge,

I find your assessment to squarely focus on two of my reporting interests. Before writing about ACORN, I wrote a lot about government contracting, especially at the Pentagon. There were so many large contractors there getting work that was being claimed as going to small contractors, and helping small entrepreneurs. Now it appears Congress has , in going after potentially criminal behavior by some housing counselors at ACORN, gone after some of their largest donors -- the military industrial complex.

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Washington, DC: Correction: ACORN founded in 1970 not 1979 as article states (likely a typo).

Questions:

1) It seems lots of reports assume all four videos show the same thing, but they and the transcripts seem to indicate that they are not similar events. Are reporters filing stories based on summaries of the work of other reporters, or are they taking their own original reading of the transcripts? For instance, many reports state O'Keefe is dressed as a pimp, yet he clearly is not in any of the videos that show him.

2) How do the actions of O'Keefe and Giles compare to investigative reporting that uses similar techniques (deception and videotaping without consent)?

3) Undercover techniques seem fair in some settings but unfair to release and misrepresent in the case where the ACORN staff was "going along" (however you feel about that) to collect information to give to police, as they did in one of the Calif tapes (employee was Juan Carlos Vera who reported the story to detectives). Does this open them up to libel charges? Or does that defense by the ACORN employee ring hollow?

Thanks.

Carol Leonnig: Dear Washington DC:

Good questions, and also right up my alley in terms of interests.

1) Its absolutely true the videos don't all show the same thing. And it appears well-documented now that the videos , in some cases, left out what I would call some exculpatory material that might make you see ACORN in a more favorable light. For example, in one, a San Bernadino employee at ACORN explains that there is no way ACORN would support what the couple were proposing, and she asks if they are putting her on, candid-camera style

2& 3)Undercover cameras are not really the vanguard of journalism in my world these days. We like to say who we are, be up front, get our information without any subterfuge or lies. Few major news organizations really engage in that these days, because of the trickery that's involved and how that ends up tainting the messenger. However, I'm not dismissing what O'Keefe and Giles have done. Its just not my method. And I'd add, let's remember ABC News and how much they were pilloried for taking undercover cameras into Food Lion butcher areas and discovering illegally backdated hamburger, and Cloroxed fish.

But I'm happy to hear what you all think on this.

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Baltimore: Do you think that ACORN could have found a worse person to vouch for it than a guy who was forced out after his brother was involved in an embezzlement scandal?

Carol Leonnig: Dear Baltimore:

Actually, I asked Wade Rathke to tell me what he thought of this scandal surrounding his organization. He was reluctant, and wanted to make sure people understood he couldn't speak for current management. However, I thought he was a critical voice that hadn't been heard from. After all, he created it with a co-founder and had run it for 38 years. As he said, its future is very important to him, though he doesn't run it anymore.

He acknowledges the tragedy of his brother's embezzlement, and says he did not act to handle this internally on his own. There was a shared agreement, he said, among executive committee members to protect the organization and handle this crime in a "redemptive" way.

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New York: Carol, thanks for the chat. How did the two conservative activists decide to approach their investigation the way they did? Did they have prior information that ACORN was giving questionable tax advice, something like that? What made them decide to impersonate a pimp and prostitute?

Carol Leonnig: Dear New York:

Great question. I don't know the complete answer. Both Giles, O'Keefe and their supporters have been pretty helpful to us in giving a broad-brush description of how this came together, but they are also defensive about claims that the pair were bankrolled by some big amorphous conservative GOP movement to tarnish ACORN. So some details are missing.

However, I noticed that the House Republican investigative report, which was launched earlier this year by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Ca.) and was published in July, gave an interesting road map for a reporter if they wanted to find the vulnerable areas of the organization. The report highlights how poorly staff were trained, and how little they were paid and supervised.

Clearly, ACORN has been a conservative target and lightning rod since the 2008 presidential campaign.

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Cumberland, MD: Why was the mainstream press so slow to deal with the criminality of ACORN? This failure to deal with the Acorn story is why the mainstream media is not trusted anymore.

Carol Leonnig: Dear Cumberland MD:

So glad you asked this question. I have to agree with our executive editor when he said the other day that he is concerned that reporters sometimes tend to have more liberal sources than conservative ones. This could be part of the problem, but it also strikes me as a fairly natural imbalance that can happen when reporters focused on Washington have been covering a Republican administration for eight years, and trying to learn for the reading public whether they are doing a good job.

Next, I would offer this: There is such a lot of hyperbole being shouted from the rooftops as fact -- on BOTH extreme ends of the political spectrum, left and right -- that reporters are fairly dubious when someone makes a claim that is laden with factual exaggerations.

For example, when I heard ACORN was "on tap to get $8.5 billion in federal funders under the Obama administration", I kept thinking: Wow, Lockheed is sure gonna be jealous.

Nobody, nobody, gets an $8.5 billion contract. And indeed this claim was wildly exaggerated. Sometimes, all those great talking points make the people repeating them sound untrustworthy or at least, unlikely to have a bona fide story.

That said, when I was assigned ( I cover federal agencies mostly) to start digging into ACORN's past financial problems, there was plenty to write about and plenty of reason for folks to want clearer answers about how they handle their funds and their training of staff.

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Rockville, Md.: When "Dateline" or 60 Minutes uses hidden cameras, it's called "investigative journalism"; when two activists do it, it's called "entrapment." This is a clear double-standard, and the MSM should be ashamed that they were beaten at their own game.

Carol Leonnig: Sorry, can't address. We don't do undercover cameras.

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Rathke quote: Carol, you quoted Wade Rathke as saying: "There's nothing under this God's son they won't call you". What does that mean? Is he comparing himself to Jesus, and his 'tormentors' as Pharisees? Or did he mean "sun", not son? In any event, kind of a weird quote. Was he forthcoming to you about the circumstances of his ouster, or did you have to pull the details?

Carol Leonnig: So sorry -- that's a typo.

God's sun!

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Richmond, VA: I've heard that the two investigators approached several ACORN offices, but not all visits yielded the shocking results found at the Baltimore office. Do we know how many offices were visited, how many rejected the couple's requests, how many did not? Thanks.

Carol Leonnig: Dear Richmond,

Another good questions. We don't know the total. O'Keefe has not exactly said. And as you know from our reporting, ACORN officials say that there are many places where O'Keefe and Giles visited and got a chilly reception -- or at least no cooperation. Indeed, ACORN turned over a police report in which staff in one of their offices reported the pair to police after their first visit.

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K Street: I hope the offending employees in the videos have been fired. Have they actually broken any laws with their actions? What could they possibly say to defend themselves? Is this an ongoing problem within ACORN?

Carol Leonnig: Dear K Street:

Most of the employees have been put on unpaid leave pending an investigation. One was put on paid leave, because she has produced evidence suggesting she was just playing along with this video team and thought it was a gag.

There may indeed be ongoing problems at ACORN, systemic ones in particular that have to do with hiring and training. You have to ask why a housing counselor would say: "Hey, this is how you hide your prostitution business, this is what you should say instead of 'brothel' when you have to fill out this form."

Are they just clueless or what?

But on the other hand, there are some people in every organization who don't handle themselves professionally. I know that is how major corporations and large government agencies respond when I have asked about a series of employees caught selling client information, or running a offside prostitution business, etc.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: For those who question the morality of providing housing assistance information to people who are also criminals, let me please ask: is a person whose jobs it is is to advocate for residents in a low income neighborhood supposed to refuse assistance upon learning the person state they may be part of the underground economy? Is it their job to judge, and then to decide that prostitute and pimps do not deserve a place to live? Who is out there casting this first stone?

Carol Leonnig: Are you kidding me?

If you are getting federal funds to do housing counseling, you don't have to judge. But you sure don't have to aid and abet.

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Minneapolis, Minn.: When is the broader media going to report that the bill to defund ACORN as passed by the Congress also compels the de-funding of any organization that has been charged with breaking federal or state election laws, lobbying disclosure laws, campaign finance laws or filing fraudulent paperwork with any federal or state agency. It also applies to any of the employees, contractors or other folks affiliated with a group charged with any of those things. That would essentially de-fund every major government contractor, particularly in defense.

Carol Leonnig: Hi Minneapolis.

See my earlier post at the top of the hour....

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Scale: Coming to this topic late. What is the scale of the problem? What percentage or proportion of ACORN's employees are considered to be dishonest? What is ACORN's annual federal grant?

Carol Leonnig: Great question -- but no answer.

How do you know how many employees would do this?

Now to answer your other questions:

Last year, ACORN and its affiliates employed part-time or full-time more than 100,000 workers.

From 2002 to the present, ACORN housing has received $10.9 million in funding for housing counseling.

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Boston: I wish Congress looked into KBR with equal enthusiam- might find BILLIONS rather than millions

Carol Leonnig: Dear Boston,

It is interesting how investigators are rarely focused on organizations they like and trust, and organizations run by their compatriots.

I noticed an example of this last week on Capitol Hill. I've written a lot about congressional earmarks by Rep. John Murtha that have benefitted contractors he is friends with, and also about the airport almost entirely built from $150 million in earmarks he provided.

A Republican member of Congress urged de-funding this airport named after Jack Murtha in Johnstown, PA.

But at the suggestion of another Democrat, the de-funder wasn't as keen to de-fund a somewhat similar airport in Kentucky benefitting and financial aided by another Republican.

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re: some perspective please: Ok, so now that we've broken the story that a couple of minimum wage workers at a national organization, with scores of offices across the country were found to be giving sketchy advice to a fake pimp, can we do a story on the McDonalds employee I saw getting high behind the Hagerstown McDonalds last month? Surely Congressional investigations into McDonalds' hiring practices can't be far behind.

Were you actually serious about this story being something that The Liberal MSM (tm) should have jumped on sooner? The fact that this story has legs -at all- is proof that when Rush and the GOP say "Jump", the "liberal media" asks "How high?"

Carol Leonnig: Perspective:

You made me laugh out loud, very loudly. I must admit it.

But your question is at the heart of this political brawl -- do four or five or even seven videos of ACORN employees looking clueless and even helpful to criminals make the organization an oozing, corrupt mess.

To be fair, it probably would be news (and no doubt I'd be asked to chase it down) if several McDonald's employees at different locations were caught on tape handing over marijuana at their drive-throughs. To be entirely honest, I credit a very smart colleague who sits near me for this comparison.

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Wilmington, NC: The Post would better serve its journalistic responsibility by ignoring the hacks and kooks pushing this non-story. You should understand, no matter how much you indulge them, it will NEVER be enough and the screeching will NEVER stop. This sort of pandering is simply counterproductive.

Carol Leonnig: Dear Wilmington:

I do think this is worthwhile story, but I do think there is a lot of SCREECHING. I am going to have to concur with Wade Rathke on one of his points.

"If you could read my email : YOWZA! It could take the pain off a Chevy."

I've never gotten so much vile, can't-show-my-husband-or-he'd-ask-for-a-duel, hate mail -- mostly from the right -- as I have after writing about ACORN.

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Scale 2: So we have relatively speaking a handful of employees out of the unknown number approached by the undercover team out of over 100,000 potential sting targets who proved to be shady at the least and potentially criminal effecting perhaps a fraction of $10.5 million over 7 years.

I'd love to see the bar graph comparing ACORN with Madoff's firm, or better yet, as mentioned above, military contractors including Halliburton, that have been found to be...mishandling taxpayer funds.

Carol Leonnig: Hi Scale 2:

See answer to Scale 1

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let's remember ABC News...: I never understood blaming ABC. I WANT to eat safe food and am glad they caught lawbreakers who were poisoning me. Sometimes the "alledgedly" bad guy can be pretty good with the red herring of blame the journalist. Wrong is wrong.

Carol Leonnig: Hi again,

Yep, I want to eat safe food too. And its hard for me to buy meat at Food Lion still. But when I was a young pup in my first journalism job, I watched Food Lion rip that reporting to shreds as based on a house of lies and deception. Ultimately, no matter what, reporting must be above reproach. I think James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles can tell you, they've had their motives questioned time and time again. Their backgrounds lead to those questions, and ultimately these videos are played against a heated political argument about the future direction of the country.

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Carol Leonnig: Thanks everybody for your good questions, and I will see you another time. Feel free to email me if you have other ideas or tips for stories about your federal government.

I'm at leonnigc@washpost.com

Best

Carol Leonnig

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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