If journalism is about impact, it's been a good two weeks for twentysomething filmmakers James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles.
The now famous pair -- depending on your choice of media outlet -- posed as a pimp and a prostitute and, with hidden camera at the ready, sought help setting up a brothel from ACORN, the taxpayer-supported community organizing group. ACORN traditionally backs voter registration drives, affordable housing and minimum-wage increases. Turns out some of its staff are also open to prostitution, sex trafficking in minors, tax fraud and money laundering.
That's the unmistakable message from ACORN employees caught on camera in the series of videos released by O'Keefe and Giles. And not just in one office, but in Baltimore, Washington, New York, and San Bernardino and San Diego, Calif.
After the release of the Baltimore video two weeks ago, ACORN attacked the "right-wing and its echo chambers." Chief organizer Bertha Lewis wrote, "We are the Willy Horton for 2009. We are the boogeyman. ... If ACORN did not exist, the right-wing would have needed to create us in order to achieve their ... ideal, retrograde America."
Lewis suggested the behavior was an aberration -- and two employees were fired. She practically challenged O'Keefe and Giles to reveal what happened during other visits to ACORN offices.
Well, they were happy to oblige -- and the pattern of stupidity continued, and led to more firings.
Here's the official impact:
-- The Census Bureau dropped Acorn as one of its partners on the 2010 count. "Recent events ... have added to the worsening negative perceptions of ACORN," Census Director Robert M. Groves wrote to the group.
-- The Senate voted overwhelmingly Monday, 83-7, to cut off housing funding to ACORN, and the House upped the ante by voting, 345-75, to deny all funding. (The group has received $54 million from the feds since 1994.)
-- House Republicans want audits of ACORN and its affiliates, and investigations by Congress and the Justice Department.
-- Governors such as Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota and Arnold Schwarzenneger in California are moving to end state funding or investigate.
Cutting off funds is a good starting point. The burden is on ACORN now to prove it can be trusted with taxpayer money. And during a thorough review of its operations and financing, we can also learn if it was the editing of the videos that made ACORN look so bad, as some claim.
You can watch the videos at www.biggovernment.com. Granted, O'Keefe and Giles were eager to find dirt on ACORN, but who knew they would walk into muckrakers heaven?
This was the basic pitch: James wanted to set up Kenya (Hannah) in a house where she could entertain johns. She would give the profits to James to bankroll his future run for Congress. They would bring in a dozen or so girls, age 16 and under, from El Salvador to work with Kenya. Could ACORN help legitimize the enterprise with housing and tax help?
The appropriate response from a taxpayer-funded nonprofit would be somewhere between "Federal law prohibits blah, blah, blah" and "Get the hell out of here" -- which apparently happened in the Philly office.
Instead, at the ACORN offices in the videos, the answer was basically, "Hell, yes." The folks in Baltimore helpfully pointed out that to be legit, and thus file tax forms, they couldn't call it prostitution. So the ACORN staffer went through the tax code to find the right nomenclature.
"You could go under performing arts as the principle business and there is a code for that," she concludes.
When told of the underage Salvadoran girls who would be brought into the country illegally, the ACORN worker thought through the options. Issue 1099s? Social Security cards? Finally, she decides, "They under 16 ... so you can use them as dependents because they live in your house." But only claim three, she warns, as claiming 13 might draw attention.
Did she really understand what was going on? Apparently. Of the Salvadorans, she says, " ... if they making money and they are underage then you shouldn't be letting anybody know ... it's illegal. So I am not hearing this."
The offending ACORN branches also offered financial advice, such as how much money to put in the bank weekly to make Kenya look like a legitimate wage earner -- while turning over the rest to James, and how she should hide money in a tin in her backyard. The San Diego staffer appeared ready to help smuggle the girls into the United States.
Never mind O'Keefe and Giles' politics. There's clearly a problem at ACORN that requires more than the "independent" review the group has planned. They should receive no more taxpayer money until thorough audits and investigations are completed. We need to know how far the nuts fall from the tree.
Kevin Ferris is assistant editor of the Editorial Page of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at email@example.com.