WASHINGTON - An internal investigation of the community-organizing group ACORN has concluded there was no criminal conduct by employees who were caught on videos offering advice on how to hide assets and falsify lending documents.
The report, which ACORN's chief executive officer described as "part vindication, part constructive criticism, and complete road map for the future," was unlikely to stem political criticisms of the group and its efforts.
In a 47-page assessment, former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, commissioned by the organization for the inquiry, says its leaders "appear committed to effect reform and are on their way to preserving ACORN and its mission in a reduced size and scope."
Harshbarger's report says ACORN - the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now - should return to its roots, focusing on community organizing and should hire an independent ethics officer to oversee an internal governance program that is already under way.
The report was the product of a two-month investigation.
The videos of ACORN staffers offering advice to a woman and a man posing as a prostitute and her boyfriend triggered a firestorm of criticism this fall. The ACORN employees who were videotaped appeared willing to support illegal tax schemes, misuse of public funds, and trafficking in children.
But, Harshbarger said in a statement: "We did not find a pattern of intentional, illegal conduct by ACORN staff involved; in fact, no action, illegal or otherwise, was ever taken by any ACORN employee on behalf of the videographers. Instead, the videos represent the by-product of ACORN's long-standing management weaknesses, including a lack of training, a lack of procedures and a lack of on-site supervision."
In an interview, Harshbarger called some of the behavior inappropriate but said there was a difference between behaving unprofessionally and behaving illegally.
ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis said Harshbarger "was tough but fair in examining where ACORN has been and what we still need to accomplish in having the most effective possible organization to represent the interests of the communities we represent."
ACORN's voter-registration efforts, which target blacks, Hispanics, and low-income residents who tend to support Democratic candidates, also have been criticized by Republicans who accuse the group of voter fraud. ACORN canvassers, paid by the name, at times have submitted phony registrations.
Lewis has said the group is required by law to submit those names to local election boards even after it identifies them as false. She said no one has voted with a phony registration obtained by an ACORN canvasser.
"How surprising is it that a report paid for by ACORN exonerates them?" Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee, said.
The report is "a whitewashed 'internal investigation' by a Democrat Party hack from Massachusetts," said conservative columnist Andrew Breitbart.
ACORN is suing him and James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, the couple who posed as a prostitute and her boyfriend. Breitbart posted their videos on his Web site.
In September, Congress blocked previously approved funds from going to ACORN.
"In barring ACORN from competing for federal contracts when no lawbreaking had occurred, Congress rushed to judgment and violated fundamental constitutional rights," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice.