ACORN Scandal: Will Harshbarger Intervention Make or Break the ACORN?

ACORN’s CEO, Bertha Lewis announced last week that the group will seek an independent review of its operations. ACORN also announced that former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger would oversee the review. Although it seems difficult to imagine that the credentials of an attorney could allay public skepticism about the ethics of ACORN—especially in an era where lawyer-dominated institutions are frequently enmeshed in scandal—the professional background of Harshbarger makes him possibly the right person for the job.

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That is, if ACORN—and Bertha Lewis—let him do the job.

Bertha Lewis is among the ACORN senior staff and Executive Committee members who actively concealed an apparently million dollar embezzlement from the organization by Dale Rathke, brother of ACORN founder and Lewis’ predecessor Wade Rathke. So it is hard to believe Scott Harshbarger’s first line of business will be recommending or otherwise arranging for ACORN to fire Bertha Lewis and all her admitted, embezzlement concealing co-conspirators.

Bringing in Harshbarger does not signal the first time ACORN purported to put its proverbial house in order following a major breach of public trust.

Last year ACORN’s national board of directors installed an Interim Management Committee (IMC) upon learning of Dale Rathke’s embezzlement and the related cover up by some senior staff, including Wade Rathke, and certain ACORN Executive Committee members. After firing Wade, the national board appointed its members, Karen Inman, Carol Hemmingway, and Marcel Reid to collectively act in his stead. Inman was to temporarily address legal affairs; Hemmingway considered financial matters; and Reid handled governance as ACORN’s IMC.

ACORN’s national board authorized its IMC to hire independent professionals to investigate and help reorganize ACORN following decades of arguable domination by the Rathke family. The IMC in turn pursued more definitive remedial actions, including a complete accounting of all ACORN assets, a forensic examination of the known embezzlement and an independent audit of ACORN and its related entities.

So what happened? Unfortunately, 38 of 50 national board members were subsequently swayed by ACORN’s Executive Committee and other corporate insiders to remove the IMC and abandon its members’ prudent inquiries. Nevertheless, eight courageous, now former ACORN board members, banded together and formed the ACORN 8, LLC to reform the once venerable ACORN. Marcel Reid is Chair and Karen Inman is Vice Chair of the ACORN 8.

The ACORN 8 were the first to identify the nebulous Citizen’s Consulting Inc. (CCI) and attempted to “follow the money” at ACORN; the first to seek a forensic examination and independent audit of ACORN and its related organizations; the first to seek injunctions against ACORN, the Rathkes and CCI; the first to call for a national boycott of all charitable donations, federal funding and member dues otherwise payable to ACORN; and the first to formally allege civil and constitutional rights violations as well as RICO offenses against ACORN’s upper management. Consequently, Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell issued subpoenas and is investigating ACORN and Wade Rathke.

According to the New York Times, Maude Hurd, chair of ACORN’s board of directors, announced Scott Harshbarger’s appointment. How noble of her, considering that the first meaningful step Harshbarger could take would be to recommend her removal from ACORN. Acting on behalf of ACORN’s Executive Committee, Maude Hurde ejected the ACORN 8 from ACORN in contravention of their First Amendment right to speak out, litigate, and petition government. Title 18, section 241 of the United States Code makes it a federal crime to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, and/or intimidate people in the free exercise or enjoyment of their rights or privileges secured by the U.S. Constitution.

In any event, don’t be fooled – a “review” is not a forensic examination, independent audit, or comprehensive criminal investigation. But we do hold some ray of hope; Harshbarger is sure to recognize an ole’ fashioned Smoke Screen / White Wash. He is a former Massachusetts attorney general and gubernatorial candidate; current chief executive of the advocacy group Common Cause; and lawyer with Proskauer Rose, focusing on corporate investigations and defense as well as nonprofit governance and ethics cases.

Surely Harshbarger will promptly know if his scope of authority in overseeing ACORN’s internal review process is enough for him to “right the ship”. And even if Harshbarger’s role in ACORN’s proclaimed self-reform is too superficial and/or brief, he is sure to immediately conclude ACORN should oust Bertha Lewis and her embezzlement concealing co-conspirators, not to mention ACORN’s criminal-conspiring, constitutional rights violators.

As Chair of the Legal Affairs Committee for the ACORN 8, I say that ACORN’s selection of Scott Harshbarger is a good first step towards positive, meaningful reform of ACORN. Well, actually the organization’s IMC was its first good step towards that reform. Hopefully, Harshbarger will avert additional ACORN missteps

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