ACORN Cracks Wide Open
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, is a network of nonprofit community groups formed nearly 40 years ago on the premise that banks, corporations and insurance companies, immersed in greed, have kept poor and predominantly minority neighborhoods desperate.
Within the past couple months, however, its leaders have been engaged in the more mundane task of spinning a scandal that already has claimed its most visible leader. To longtime ACORN critics, it’s a case of belated just deserts.
At the center of this storm are ACORN co-founder and chief organizer Wade Rathke and his brother, Dale.
Wade Rathke is an almost legendary figure in progressive Left circles. Beginning in the Sixties as an SDS activist, he would go on to apply his talents to the National Welfare Rights Organization, whose principle legacy during its years of existence was a large expansion of welfare eligibility and dependency.
Out of this experience came ACORN in 1970. Initially based in Little Rock and eventually in New Orleans, ACORN has become a giant oak tree.
The group’s early agitprop rhetoric, as expressed in its People’s Platform, made clear its intent for the years ahead:
We are the majority, forged from all minorities. We are the masses of many, not the forces of few. Enough is enough.
We will wait no longer for the crumbs at America’s door. We will not be meek, but mighty. We will not starve on past promises, but feast on future dreams.
From the start, ACORN has been unapologetically radical in both worldview and tactics. Taking its inspiration the organization, now claiming about 1,200 chapters with some 400,000 households in the U.S. and abroad, prides itself in its ability to mobilize local residents into demanding and getting their fair share – regardless of whether the donations are voluntary. Right now, ACORN hopes to mobilize someone into replacing Wade Rathke.
For several weeks ACORN has been reeling over accusations that Rathke’s brother, Dale, had embezzled nearly $1 million during the turn of the decade – and that both had conspired to cover up the offense. That triggered Wade Rathke’s resignation on June 2 as chief organizer.
Sometime this spring an internal whistle-blower forced ACORN leaders to admit if not complicity in all this, then at least a moral blind spot.
In its July 9, 2008 edition, the New York Times reported that during 1999-2000 Dale Rathke, at the time the group’s chief financial officer, diverted $948,607.50 in funds from ACORN and affiliated charitable organizations toward Citizens Consulting Inc., a firm that provides bookkeeping, accounting and other financial services. The sum appeared on the company’s books as a loan.
So why didn’t ACORN executives take action at the time? Maude Hurd, president of ACORN since 1990, explained it this way: “We thought it best at the time to protect the organizations, as well as to get the funds back into the organization, to deal with it in-house.
It was a judgment call at the time, and looking back, people can agree or disagree with it, but we did what we thought was right.” Apparently, doing the right thing meant keeping Dale Rathke on the ACORN payroll until his firing this June.
The group in 2001 had obtained an enforceable restitution agreement by which the Rathke family would replenish the missing funds in $30,000 annual installments.
When news of the scandal broke, seven payments totaling $210,000 had been made. An unnamed donor then stepped in, offering to pay the remaining balance of around $740,000.
New York ACORN chief Bertha Lewis confirmed to Times reporter Stephanie Strom this was all but a done deal.
Wade Rathke denies he’d been covering for his brother. He insists he learned of the problem only when an employee of Citizens Consulting alerted him about unusual credit card transactions. “Clearly, this was an uncomfortable, conflicting and humiliating situation as far as my family and I were concerned,” he said, “and so the real decisions on how to handle it had to be made by others.”
Still, Dale Rathke continued to collect a $38,000-a-year salary, despite having been removed from day-to-day responsibilities as CFO. This was a no-show job all but in name.
Besides, look at the all the good ACORN has done! A recent and lengthy article by Peter Dreier and John Atlas, respectively, professor of urban politics at Occidental College (Los Angeles) and founder of the National Housing Institute (Maplewood, N.J.), provides a case in point. Writing in the popular Left-leaning blog site, The Huffington Post, they note:
In the world of scandals, ACORN’s missteps don’t even register on the radar compared with the swindles perpetrated by top executives at Halliburton, Enron, WorldCom, Countrywide and other major corporations who ripped off the government, stockholders, and consumers of billions of dollars. But progressive groups have to be squeaky clean. They must live by a higher standard, in part because they are constantly under scrutiny by powerful business and government officials and in part, because they depend on the good will of funders (who typically get federal tax breaks for their donations) and low-income members (who sacrifice to pay ACORN dues)…
But in the community organizing world, ACORN stands almost alone as a national force, with its local chapters, dues-paying members and an ability to wage and win major reforms at the neighborhood, city, state and national level. snip
Lost in this populist narrative are a few salient realities.
First, the group’s tactics, legally speaking, more than once have amounted to extortion and incitement to riot. In July 1997, for example, roughly 200 ACORN protestors stormed a session of the Chicago City Council, pushing over the metal detector and table used to screen visitors, backing police against doors, and blocking entrance to the room by late-arriving alderman and staff; six persons were arrested in the fracas. They’ve got that Alinsky magic, all right.