Taking Stock Of The ACORN Sting

As you probably know by now, last week two conservative activists set off a frenzy in the right-wing media by posting videos in which they posed as a pimp and a prostitute — complete with outlandish costumes — and asked employees of ACORN for advice on how to conceal the woman’s source of income on their tax forms. ACORN employees in Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Brooklyn, fell for the sting, offering advice to the young couple on how to deceive the government.

ACORN fired the employees involved, but that hasn’t stopped coverage of the scandal from mushrooming beyond Fox’s Glenn Beck and quickly going mainstream.The reaction from Washington has been just as swift:

• The Census Bureau announced late last week that it would stop using ACORN as one of the 80,000 unpaid groups it works with to promote the 2010 census.

• On Monday, the Senate voted 83 to 7 to block the Department of Housing and Urban Development from giving federal housing money to ACORN.

• Yesterday, GOP House leader John Boehner wrote to President Obama, urging him to cut off all federal money to ACORN and its affiliates.

• Nebraska GOP senator Mike Johanns has called for a Justice Department investigation of the group.

• White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs has called the employees’ behavior “unacceptable.”

• And even GOP senator David Vitter — no stranger to prostitution scandals — has expressed his outrage.

In pushing back, ACORN has said it’s considering suing Fox and the conservative film-makers for using a hidden camera to record the ACORN employees, which is illegal in some states. It also has charged that the film-makers tried their scam on other ACORN offices, but after not getting the responses they hoped for, didn’t post the videos.

ACORN announced today that it will conduct in-service training for staff, and that its Independent Advisory Council will do an audit “to review all of the systems and processes called into question by the videos.”

Conservatives and Republicans have longed waged a campaign against ACORN, focused mainly on the group’s voter registration activities. During the 2008 cycle, ACORN, by its own tally, helped register over 1.3 million low-income, minority, and young — in other words, predominantly Democratic — voters across the country. As Steve Staneck, of the conservative Heartland Institute put it to CBS News this week: “[ACORN] has no business trying to organize voter registration because it has shown time and time again that it cannot be trusted to do that.”

But there’s little evidence that any of ACORN’s bad conduct has compromised that core effort. Even the cases of voter-registration fraud that Republicans complained loudly about last fall — in which ACORN canvassers wrote Mickey Mouse and other fake names on registration forms, in order to pad their numbers and earn bonuses — had no impact on actual voter rolls, since Mickey Mouse can’t show up to vote.

Still, this story isn’t likely to go away any time soon.

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