ACORN 2009 undercover videos controversy
In 2009, workers at offices of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a non-profit organization that had been involved for nearly 40 years in voter registration, community organizing and advocacy for low- and moderate-income people, were secretly recorded by conservative activists Hannah Giles and James O'Keefe – and the videos "heavily edited" to create a misleading impression of their activities.
The edited videos were published on Andrew Breitbart's website BigGovernment.com from September through November 2009. They generated extensive, negative publicity for ACORN, and led to the U.S. Census Bureau and the IRS ending their contracts with ACORN, the U.S. Congress suspending its funding, and ACORN losing most of its private funding. This was despite several independent investigations that by December 2009 began to reveal no criminal activity by ACORN staff had taken place.
Hannah Giles and James O'KeefeEdit
Hannah Giles (born March 15, 1989) is an American conservative activist. Her father is a conservative Christian pastor, Doug Giles. She came to national attention with James O'Keefe in the United States in September 2009 as a featured player in videos they had filmed secretly in encounters at offices of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). At the time, Giles was studying journalism at Florida International University. Following the videos' release and extensive media coverage, she dropped out of college to "pursue demands to keep up with public appearances and job offers." Giles and O'Keefe spent $1,300 to accomplish what Washington Post reporters called a "Mission to Fell ACORN".
James E. O'Keefe III (born June 28, 1984) is an American conservative activist-filmmaker who came to national attention in the United States in September 2009 with the release of his ACORN undercover videos. O'Keefe worked for about a year at the Leadership Institute, led by Morton Blackwell. O'Keefe has described his politics as "progressive radical”, although media coverage and his own activities consistently paint him as a conservative. He has expressed admiration for the philosophies of British writer G.K. Chesterton and Soviet dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. He has made additional secret videos since then, also found to have been heavily edited to misrepresent his subjects, or present them in the worst light. On January 26, 2010, O'Keefe was arrested with three colleagues, including Robert Flanagan, the son of the acting U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Louisiana, and initially charged with a federal felony for attempting to maliciously interfere with the office telephone system of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and to tape conversations of her and her staff. They later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and were given minor sentences including community service.
Hidden camera recordings and video releasesEdit
In July and August 2009, Giles and O'Keefe visited ACORN offices in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, San Bernardino, San Diego, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Miami. Giles dressed as a prostitute, while O'Keefe wore white khakis with a blue dress shirt and/or tie and claimed to be her boyfriend. Giles and O'Keefe recorded the encounters using hidden cameras and pretended to be seeking advice on how to run an illegal business that included the use of underage girls in the sex trade.
Edited videos from the visits to ACORN offices in Baltimore, Washington, D.C., Brooklyn, San Bernardino, and San Diego were released between September 10 and September 17, 2009, and were used to launch Andrew Breitbart's BigGovernment.com website.
In the videos, O'Keefe included segments in which he wore a fur coat, top hat, sunglasses, and wielded a cane, giving viewers, including the media, the impression that he had dressed that way when he visited the ACORN offices and spoke to its workers. As part of the deception and distortion of the released videos, O'Keefe added that portion as a lead-in, but he was dressed professionally during his ACORN visits. He never revealed himself on camera in the visits to the ACORN offices.
|ACORN Office Location||Video
|Baltimore||2009-09-10||2009-09-10||Unknown||2 / 18:07||1|
|Washington, D.C.||2009-09-11||2009-09-14||2009-07-25||2 / 12:46||1|
|Brooklyn||2009-09-14||2009-09-15||2009-08-04||2 / 15:42||1|
|San Bernardino||2009-09-15||2009-09-19||2009-08-17||4 / 28:31||1|
|San Diego||2009-09-17||2009-09-19||2009-08-18||2 / 12:48||1, 2|
In the Baltimore office, the released video lets viewers hear O'Keefe saying that he and Giles were bringing up thirteen girls from El Salvador "like 15" years of age to live in their house and work as prostitutes "just to get them on their feet so they can do this type of thing." Giles remarks, "they are kind of dependent." Although the Baltimore ACORN staffer pointed out their plans were illegal, after O'Keefe says, "we are going to be putting a roof over [their] head", the ACORN employee states, "well then you know what you can always claim them as dependents." Later, the employee says, "you are gonna use three of them they are gonna be under 16 so you is eligible to get child tax credit and additional child tax credit." When O'Keefe asks, "what if they are going to be making money because they are performing tricks too?" the employee replies, "but if they making money and they are underage, then you shouldn't be letting anybody know anyway." The Baltimore employees were fired by ACORN after the video was released.
In the Washington, D.C., office, Giles and O'Keefe ask about how to account for Giles' anticipated prostitution income on tax forms. Giles asks, "is there a way I can make up two years of tax returns?" The ACORN employee replies, "no you can't make it up", but tells Giles that she could form a business and state that she provides a service. The employee says, "you can have a business. She's not going to put down that she's doing prostitution", and "you don't have to sit back and tell people what it is you do." Giles later tells an ACORN employee that she will be giving the money earned from prostitution to O'Keefe. The employee says, "when the police ask you – you don't know where it's coming from."
In the Brooklyn office, Giles and O'Keefe tell a loan counselor they want to buy a house, and that an abusive pimp is "aggressively" pursuing Giles. She "wanted to leave because it is scary being subjected to a huge man who has control over your life." The ACORN counselor advises her "you get a tin if [he] is going to come beat you... you get a tin and bury it down in there and you put the money right in and you put grass over it and you don't tell a single soul." When discussing getting a house and Giles' earnings, O'Keefe says that Giles is very honest and an ACORN counselor replies, "honest is not going to get you the house that is why you probably been denied cause you probably going in saying." Another stated to Giles, "you can't say what you do for a living." For tax and banking purposes, and to establish a legitimate income and credit history, Giles was told she needed to start saying she was a "freelancer". The ACORN employee also suggested that Giles open two accounts at separate banks, depositing no more than $500 each a week to ensure few eyebrows are raised.
In the San Bernardino office, ACORN employee Tresa Kaelke told O'Keefe and Giles they could classify the underage brothel as a "group home" to avoid detection; she suggested the pair "invest in a line of vitamins" to disguise the location's true purpose. Later, Kaelke stated she believed the activists were joking and made a variety of absurd or joking statements to them. She said they were "somewhat entertaining, but they weren't even good actors." Office supervisor Christina Spach said Kaelke "pretended to cooperate with O'Keefe and Giles because she feared for her safety." Kaelke responded to the pair's requests for help setting up a child-prostitution ring on the video by claiming to be an ex-prostitute and exclaiming, "Heidi Fleiss is my hero!" The California Attorney General's investigation of Kaelke determined that "none of her claims" on the video were true, that "she was playing along with what she perceived as a joke", and there was "no evidence she had ever engaged in prostitution." According to CNN, the filmmakers released a transcript of their discussion with Kaelke that included a comment left out of the originally released tape in which Kaelke said that ACORN would have nothing to do with their prostitution business. Kaelke said that her supervisor "would shoot this down faster than a bat out of hell", but advised the couple to conceal the prostitution business by calling it a massage parlor. Kaelke was fired by ACORN after the videos were released.
In the San Diego office, edited video showed ACORN employee Juan Carlos Vera telling O'Keefe he had "contacts" in "Tijuana" to help get underage girls across the border. But, after the discussion with O'Keefe, Vera reported O'Keefe's fabricated plan for human smuggling to police. Vera was fired for what ACORN called "unacceptable conduct". Vera had said he tried to help the fake prostitute because she said that she needed to escape her controlling pimp. On July 8, 2010, after the AG's Report confirmed that he had contacted the police to try to thwart the couple's smuggling plan, Vera filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California against O'Keefe and Giles for recording him without his permission, which was a violation of California law. In July 2012, Giles settled the case with Vera, leaving Vera's lawsuit with O'Keefe to move forward.
In response to release of the first videos, ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis said on Fox News on September 20, 2009, "[i]n a way, this was good for us, so what it did was show up to us what weaknesses we have, and we have moved swiftly ... in order to correct that." She said that after viewing the tapes, she had fired all the employees featured and had begun a comprehensive external investigation. As ACORN learned more from its employees of what had taken place, it called the videos "false" and "defamatory". A spokesman accused O'Keefe of dubbing the audio on the videos. On September 23, 2009, ACORN filed suit in a Baltimore court against the filmmakers, citing "extreme emotional distress" of the ACORN workers and violation of two-party consent recording laws. It later allowed the suit to lapse.
On October 21, O'Keefe and Giles released video footage of their visit to the Philadelphia office of ACORN at a National Press Club conference. They claimed it was to show they had received help there, after an ACORN spokesman had said that the pair had been asked to leave the Philadelphia office. The Washington Post "obtained a July 24 police report that showed police were called when O'Keefe and Giles attempted their sting at ACORN's Philadelphia offices—and that the couple were escorted out of those offices." Susan Kinzie of The Washington Post noted that "the heavily edited footage includes audio of the two conservatives but none of the ACORN Housing Corp. worker's responses to their questions." Junette Marcano, a board member of Philadelphia ACORN, said, "This is a targeted assault to disenfranchise our members because ... the right-wing agenda is to stop us from empowering people of low and moderate incomes. When you make the poor powerful, the powerful feel threatened."
Carol Leonnig, a Washington Post staff writer who attended the press conference, said in an interview that day on Fox News that, in explaining why the audio portion did not include the worker's responses, O'Keefe said, "on the one hand, the pair are concerned about the legal ramifications." O'Keefe claimed secondly "that the tape battery died." Commenting on the Philadelphia video, Leonnig said "when you go to this office, and you see this tape, I don't think he's got the goods to say that ACORN lied." Both Giles and O'Keefe declined to answer questions after the release of the October video.
|ACORN Office Location||Video
|Philadelphia||2009-10-21||Not available||2009-07-24||1 / Unknown||Not released|
On November 16, 2009, the pair released a video from their visit to the Los Angeles office of ACORN.
|ACORN Office Location||Video
|Los Angeles||Unknown||2009-11-16||Unknown||2 / 15:28||Not released|
Aftermath for ACORNEdit
On March 19, 2010, The New York Times reported that ACORN was on the verge of filing for bankruptcy; 15 of the group's 30 state chapters had disbanded over the past six months, and other chapters (including the largest, in New York and California) had renamed themselves and severed all ties to the national organization. Two unnamed ACORN officials told the Times that the following weekend, a teleconference was planned to discuss a bankruptcy filing; "private donations from foundations to Acorn [had] all but evaporated." The federal government had ended contracts with the group related to organizing counts in urban areas for the Census and work for the IRS. "[L]ong before the activist videos delivered what may become the final blow, the organization was dogged for years by financial problems and accusations of fraud." Former co-chairwoman of ACORN's Maryland chapter Sonja Merchant-Jones said: "That 20-minute video ruined 40 years of good work. But if the organization had confronted its own internal problems, it might not have been taken down so easily."
On March 22, 2010, National ACORN spokesman Kevin Whelan says the organization's board decided to close remaining state affiliates and field offices by April 1 because of falling revenues. On April 20, the ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis reported that ACORN was "still alive. We're limping along. We're on life support." Lewis said that ACORN's annual budget had been reduced from $25 million to $4 million, and that its staff of 350 to 600 people had been reduced to four. Lewis explained the controversy had left a stain on ACORN, "sort of like a scarlet letter." It had forced the group to spend money to respond to "one investigation after another."
President Barack Obama stated the video content was "certainly inappropriate and deserves to be investigated." ACORN's partnership in the 2010 United States Census was terminated on September 11, 2009. The United States Senate voted to exclude ACORN from federal funding on September 14, and the House of Representatives voted 345-75 to eliminate federal funding to ACORN on September 17. John Boehner, the Republican leader of the House, introduced HR 3571 the "Defund ACORN Act" on September 15, and Rep. Darrell Issa moved to incorporate that bill as an amendment to the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009 (HR 3221). Both resolutions were later nullified in a federal court ruling by Judge Nina Gershon that the measures were an unconstitutional bill of attainder. On August 13, 2010, however, a federal appeals court reversed that decision, and upheld the Congressional resolutions that cut off federal funding for ACORN.
On September 23, the Internal Revenue Service removed ACORN from its volunteer tax-assistance program. On September 24, the U.S. Treasury Department's Inspector General announced it would initiate a broader probe into "the government's oversight of tax-exempt organizations like ACORN when they engage in political activities."
Investigations of ACORN and the videosEdit
Independent external investigation by Proskauer RoseEdit
On September 16, 2009, ACORN suspended advising new clients and initiated an independent review process, headed by Scott Harshbarger, an attorney from the Proskauer Rose firm and a former Massachusetts Attorney General. On September 16, Bertha Lewis, ACORN's CEO, froze admission to all of ACORN's service programs and instituted a review committee to implement organizational reforms. The independent external investigation found that while some of the counsel given by employees and volunteers was "unprofessional and inappropriate", the videos that had been released appeared to have been edited, "in some cases substantially", and ACORN employees had taken no illegal actions.
Report by the Congressional Research ServiceEdit
On December 22, 2009, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) released a report on ACORN activities, commissioned by the House Judiciary Committee. It stated that ACORN has not been found to violate any federal regulations in the past five years. The report's other findings included that there were no instances of voter fraud by individuals who were allegedly registered to vote improperly by ACORN or its employees, and no instances where ACORN violated terms of federal funding in the last 5 years. The CRS found that O'Keefe and Giles may have violated Maryland and California laws banning the recording of face-to-face conversations without consent of both parties.
Investigation by New York attorney generalEdit
The New York Attorney General, Andrew Cuomo, began an investigation on September 15, 2009, to ensure that state grants given to ACORN were properly spent. The New York City Council suspended all ACORN grants while the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office conducted an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the videos. On March 1, 2010, the District Attorney's office for Brooklyn determined that the videos were "heavily edited" to give a misleading impression, and concluded that there was no criminal wrongdoing by the ACORN Brooklyn staff filmed in the videos. A law enforcement source said, "They edited the tape to meet their agenda."
Investigation by California attorney generalEdit
On September 25, 2009, in response to Governor Schwarzenegger's request to investigate the incidents, the California Attorney General's office opened an investigation "into the controversy surrounding videos that purportedly show members of community organizing group ACORN giving advice on how to open a brothel."
On April 1, 2010, Attorney General Jerry Brown announced the office's findings, based on its review of new unedited videotapes recorded in the California offices of ACORN, as well as other evidence. The AG had granted O'Keefe and Giles immunity from prosecution in exchange for the raw videotapes. The report noted that the terms of the exchange did not exempt O'Keefe or Giles from being sued separately by the ACORN members filmed in the videos. Citing the 1967 Invasion of Privacy Act, Attorney General Office's report stated, "an application of these principles to the facts presented here strongly suggests that O'Keefe and Giles violated state privacy laws and provides fair warning to them and others that this type of activity can be prosecuted in California."
The Attorney General Office criticized O'Keefe for not acting as a journalist trying to objectively report a story from the facts, noting instead that O'Keefe stated he "was out to make a point and to damage ACORN." The report said:
The video releases were heavily edited to feature only the worst or most inappropriate statements of the various ACORN employees and to omit some of the most salient statements by O'Keefe and Giles. Each of the ACORN employees recorded in California was a low level employee whose job was to help the needy individuals who walked in the door seeking assistance. Giles and O'Keefe lied to engender compassion, but then edited their statements from the released videos.
For instance, one much-publicized recording had shown O'Keefe and Giles at the San Diego office. They show a worker purportedly seeking information from a contact in Mexico to help them smuggle underage girls from Mexico into the United States to work as prostitutes. The video did not show that the worker's "contact" in Mexico was a police official. The employee collected as much specific information from Giles and O'Keefe as possible during their visit. The worker then contacted Mexican police to warn them of the plot. The AG Office's report stated, "ACORN was not the criminal enterprise described by O'Keefe in his 'Chaos for Glory' statement – it did not receive billions in federal funds and did not control elections. ACORN is, however, disorganized and its operations were far from transparent, leaving it vulnerable to allegations of illegal activity and misuse of funds." The report also noted that despite O'Keefe's appearing in the released videos in "stereotypical 1970s pimp garb", in his actual taped sessions with ACORN workers, he was dressed in a shirt and tie, presented himself as a law student, and said he planned to use the prostitution proceeds to run for Congress, and never claimed he was a pimp.
The report of the Attorney General Office concluded, "Even if O'Keefe and Giles had truly intended to break the law, there is no evidence that any of the ACORN employees had the intent to aid and abet such criminal conduct or agreed to join in that illegal conduct." While faulting a few of the recorded ACORN members for "terrible judgment and highly inappropriate behavior", the investigation report also concluded that "ACORN could determine that the conduct of its employees in California was inappropriate, but that is an employment matter, which does not rise to the level of a law enforcement or governmental concern". The report determined that the employees did not commit prosecutable crimes in California. Regarding this contrast between the publicity related to the videos and what actually transpired, Attorney General Brown stated, "The evidence illustrates that things are not always as partisan zealots portray them through highly selective editing of reality. Sometimes a fuller truth is found on the cutting room floor."
Investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability OfficeEdit
On June 14, 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released its findings on ACORN, by then disbanded. It said that there was no evidence that the group, or any of its related organizations, mishandled any of the $40 million in federal money that they had received in recent years.
The right-wing media complained about alleged media bias throughout the weeks as the ACORN video controversy developed. For instance, on September 15, Joshua Rhett Miller of Fox News accused the "mainstream media" of purposefully ignoring the story, and said that it was favoring the political left. Andrew Breitbart wrote in an article in The Washington Times that he had counseled Giles and O'Keefe to "offer Fox News the full footage of each video before each was released." Breitbart said he developed a strategy to counter such presumed liberal media bias by courting the Fox News Corporation: "We had to devise a plan that would force the [other news] media to see the evidence before they had enough time to destroy these two idealistic 20-something truth seekers." Giles interviewed exclusively with Fox commentator Glenn Beck on the day of the first video's release.
CNN began coverage of the story as early as September 9. CBS began to cover the story on September 11, the day after the story aired on Fox News. Breitbart and reporters of Fox News stayed on message, complaining that the "mainstream media" did not respond promptly or cover the story in sufficient depth. On September 11, 2009, Glenn Beck was reported to have said, "FOX has had 133 reports on it, CNN, 90, MSNBC, 10. How's that possible? Hey, ABC, how's it working out for you with two?"
Breitbart and O'Keefe on September 11 announced that O'Keefe would not agree to be interviewed by CNN staff. They said that CNN favored ACORN in its coverage. But, CNN had reported on ACORN-related issues of alleged voter registration fraud (which were not substantiated). O'Keefe said he felt CNN's early coverage had been slanted in favor of ACORN, because CNN had interviewed both ACORN staff members and defenders.
FOX News said that, as late as September 15, the ABC anchor Charlie Gibson was unfamiliar with the story. It did not report that ABC's Jake Tapper had been covering the issue since September 11. In a September 15 interview with Sean Hannity of FOX News, Breitbart said that O'Keefe and Giles "have been impugned in the media." Hannity said they had been "excoriated".
On September 17, 2009, Turner.com posted a list of all CNN transcripts covering the ACORN scandal, from the day the story was first released. The transcripts showed there was no evidence that Giles or O'Keefe had been "impugned" or "excoriated" by news commentators. The listed transcripts include extensive, objective coverage and discussion by CNN reporters Abbie Boudreau, Wolf Blitzer, Candy Crowley, and others. Lou Dobbs (then still at CNN) had offered an impassioned statement in support of Giles and O'Keefe on September 10, the day on which the videos were first aired.
The young woman and filmmaker who visited those ACORN offices were political activists, and they put together what is, in essence, a very effective political protest against an organization they would like to damage. And they've done a very effective job of doing that. But I think they're clearly not journalists.
The next spring, on March 20, 2010, Clark Hoyt, public editor of The New York Times, wrote an op-ed column conceding some errors in the paper's reporting. ACORN and its supporters had complained "that The Times got the story wrong and, by failing to correct it, has played into the hands of a campaign that has pushed the group near extinction." Hoyt acknowledged that it was by then known that it was not likely that O'Keefe went into the ACORN offices dressed as a pimp, as at the beginning and end of most of the videos. O'Keefe had presented himself "as a clean-cut young man, sometimes a college student, trying to rescue his girlfriend and under-age girls from an abusive pimp." But, Hoyt wrote:
ACORN's supporters appear to hope that the whole story will fall apart over the issue of what O'Keefe wore: if that was wrong, everything else must be wrong. The record does not support them. If O'Keefe did not dress as a pimp, he clearly presented himself as one: a fellow trying to set up a woman — sometimes along with under-age girls — in a house where they would work as prostitutes.
His article appeared before the release on April 1, 2010, of the California AG Report, which found that O'Keefe's videos had all been heavily edited to misrepresent the ACORN workers and present them in the worst possible light. The pair had set up the workers rather than doing investigative journalism. Investigations by the California AG, Brooklyn U.S. Attorney and the U.S. GAO found that ACORN workers had not participated in criminal activities.
Criticisms of the undercover videosEdit
In September 2009, before the investigations revealed the selective and heavy editing of the videos, Alexandra Fenwick of the Columbia Journalism Review described the video ensemble as a politically motivated piece that lacked context and did not present accurate information. She characterized the work as raw information instead of journalism. She said some elements of the ACORN videos seemed "shadows of journalism's muckraking past" and were commendable. The videos were criticized by MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell, who suggested the use of hidden cameras was a form of entrapment.
Giles and O'Keefe have been criticized for accuracy problems. Their videos include the oft-repeated conservative claim that ACORN is expected to get up to $8.5 billion in government funds. But that's a bold exaggeration, as it includes $3 billion in stimulus funds set aside for revitalization efforts nationwide, and $5.5 billion in federal community development grants.
The more than $8 billion number was based on the false assumption that ACORN would apply for and win every project and grant in the country, and in fact ACORN did not apply for any of the stimulus funds. Leonnig also observed:
the videos, in some cases, left out what I would call some exculpatory material ... for example, in one, a San Berna[r]dino 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.
During a September 14 television appearance on FOX, O'Keefe appeared dressed in a fur coat, sunglasses, and holding a cane. The host announced: "[O'Keefe] is dressed exactly in the same outfit that he wore to these ACORN offices up and down the eastern seaboard." He asked, "[I]s that what you think a pimp looks like?" O'Keefe answered yes. Within weeks, political journalist Mike Stark revealed that O'Keefe did not wear such clothing to the ACORN offices, but rather he wore subdued clothing and a tie, and in one instance posed as a candidate for Congress. Stark said, "If they really wanted the truth out there, why do they need to edit these tapes in the first place? Why aren't the unedited videos already in the public domain?"
The Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes cleared ACORN employees in the local office of criminal wrongdoing on March 1, 2010, after a five-month investigation. The Daily News quoted a law enforcement source saying that "They edited the tape to meet their agenda". The ACORN lawyer Arthur Schwartz commented that ACORN was "gratified that the DA has concluded something we knew all along." He said that O'Keefe and Giles had "used subterfuge to convince Congress and the media to vilify an organization that didn't deserve it."
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