At ACORN, a reflexive impulse to cover up instead of investigate

I had just moved into my newly purchased house in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul. The people who make up the neighborhood are folks who have lived here all their lives, mixed with newer immigrants.

The people of this neighborhood are the target of ACORN's recruiting. The message of helping low- and moderate-income people develop a voice and learn to seek help for their own problems is one that resonates well.

When an organizer showed up at my door and described the mission of ACORN, I knew it was one I could support. I joined and got involved, serving as chairperson of the Frogtown local, being elected state secretary and chosen as one of two Minnesota members to sit on the national ACORN board.

In May 2008, members of the national board were stunned to learn that Dale Rathke, brother of the founder of ACORN, had embezzled nearly $1 million and that his brother Wade, the founder and president, had covered up the embezzlement with the support of high-level staff. It was carried on the books as a loan. Not only that, but Dale was still an employee of ACORN.

A motion was crafted that ordered the removal of Wade Rathke from ACORN and all the affiliate organizations under the ACORN umbrella. Not everyone wanted Wade Rathke terminated, but the motion passed with a two-thirds majority.

The organization was being run by senior staff, many of whom I learned had pledged never to divulge the theft.

I was one of three board members elected to sit on an interim management team help deal with the myriad legal, organizational and financial issues -- to right the ship. Besides the lack of any apparent firewall between ACORN's political and nonpolitical operations, I became aware of other troubling concerns.

ACORN had more than $1.5 million in unpaid taxes. The health fund and the pension fund were underfunded. Funds were co-mingled between various nonprofit and taxable ACORN affiliates.

A colleague on the board, Marcel Reid, and I went to the ACORN office and asked to see the books. We were turned down. We tried legal action to get an accounting from Wade and Dale Rathke of any assets they had from ACORN and to compel an independent audit.

It quickly became apparent that the staff did not want an investigation. We were pressured to drop the court action, as was the board, which ultimately terminated it -- and us. We were fired for attempting to carry out our fiduciary duty and recommend reforms.

I believe there is a need for an organization that helps low- and moderate-income people to find a voice. Unfortunately, the continued coverup of questionable actions by many ACORN affiliates convinces me that ACORN as currently constituted will never allow a thorough investigation.

With its latest scandal, ACORN is going to conduct an inquiry, not an investigation. It's a familiar pattern. When the embezzlement happened, ACORN's leaders hired a firm to check how they conducted the business of the organization -- not to execute an audit.

So until ACORN gets real, the organization carries out its business in the old way, with lots of questions about where the money goes. My neighbors in Frogtown deserve far better.

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Karen Inman, a former teacher of special education classes in Des Moines and Minneapolis, works as a substitute teacher in Minneapolis and St. Paul. She prepared this piece with the help of the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, which describes itself as "an independent, non-profit educational and research organization that actively advocates the principles of individual freedom, personal responsibility, economic freedom, and limited government."

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