By Miriam Raftery
Updated 11/25 8:45 p.m.
November 25, 2009 (El Cajon) – Surreptitious taping and dumpster diving are the latest tactics used by critics seeking to discredit a local chapter of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now;www.acorn.org), the largest national organization focused on advocating for the poor and disadvantaged. The latest revelations cast doubt not only on the actions of ACORN employees, but also raise questions over the legality of tactics used to obtain information. The controversy includes questions over the legality of surreptitious taping of an East County Democratic Club meeting in El Cajon, as well as questions over the propriety of actions taken in response by Club president Raymond Lutz.
A recording of local ACORN representative Dave Lagstein, taped during an East County Democratic Club meeting last month has been posted on Youtube (http://biggovernment.com/2009/11/10/exclusive-audio-from-acorn-claims-je...). In the tape, Lagstein refers to California Attorney General Jerry Brown as a “political animal” and adds that “the fault WILL be found with the people that did the video — not ACORN.” The poster suggested the commented indicated Brown may whitewash the investigation to favor ACORN.
That allegation was circulated via e-mail by San Diego County Republican Party Chairman Tony Krvaric. "Californians are entitled to know that their Attorney General is conducting an honest, thorough, and unprejudiced inquiry into the very serious allegations of misconduct by Acorn," Krvaric stated in his e-mail. (Brown's office has assured that the investigation remains ongoing but has declined more specific comment on the controversy.)
ACORN’s Lagstein responded to Krvaric in a November 16 letter defending his statements. He notes that on October 1st, before ever meeting with the Attorney General or his staff, Lagstein expressed confidence to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that “the investigation will show that the on ly crime committed was by the self-described conservative undercover videographers in illegally recording ACORN employees without their consent….I restated my position when I spoke to the East County Democratic Club on October 15,” he said, then reiterated his belief that the Attorney General’s investigation will include potential wrongdoing by undercover videographers.
Those videographers sent in actors posing as a pimp and prostitute to ACORN’s National City office. The clips show an ACORN employee offering advice including financial counseling and answering questions about how to get people across the U.S.-Mexico border. The employee in question later reported the incident to a police officer in his family, according to ACORN, which dismissed several employees as a result and has said it would revamp training and launch an independent review of its practices, while denying any legal wrongdoing. The video (
caused a national stir that led to a cut-off of some federal funds for ACORN and other consequences.
The conservative website www.BigGovernment.com has claimed credit for the covert taping of the East County Democratic Club meeting, which was made at a Coco’s restaurant n October 15. But in an e-mail to East County Magazine, Lutz complained, “We did not record the meeting, and we stated that we were not recording it so it would not be taken out of context by anyone. Normally, it is illegal to record without consent.”
According to Terry Francke, legal counsel for Californians Aware,The Center for Public Forum Rights, California’s anti-taping law, Penal Code Section 632, bans covert taping by one party to a confidential communication, but excludes public gatherings.
“A Democratic Club meeting is presumably for members only and not a `public gathering,’” Francke told East County Magazine.
“Moreover when the presiding official at the meeting expressly assures speakers that they are not being recorded, it’s likely that a court would find that their expectation of a confined audience and no recording was reasonable.” Upon learning that the meeting was held in a restaurant, however, Francke added this caveat: “Unless that meeting was in a private banquet room, it may be that the president officer could not have realistically promised privacy since the speech might have been overheard (or recorded) from nearby tables or booths that were not part of the meeting.”
Lutz later confirmed that the meeting was held in a private banquet room—thus Francke’s contention that the taping was illegal would seem to apply.
Or does it?
In the latest twist, the conservative blog site SD Rostra has published a November 15 piece titled “Who Outed ACORN in East County?” (http://sdrostra.com/?p=1094) The piece states that Pat Sherman, a reporter from SD CityBeat recorded the meeting with full knowledge of the club’s officials. “I made it known I was there to write a story and was recording the presentation. The leak was not me,” said Sherman, according to the SD Rostra story.
“So Lutz was opposed to any recordings, short of the assumed friendly media outlet,” SD Rostra admonished, noting that Lutz, a former Assembly candidate, himself has recorded many public meetings and posted tapes online in his role as founder of Citizens Oversight, a government watchdog group.
However Lutz disputes the SD Rostra version of events, in an e-mail received by ECM this evening. "I asked Pat Sherman if he recorded the meeting and he said [he] did. I specifically said that no recordings would be allowed," he said, adding that Sherman "said that did not have time to discuss it. I am asking David Lagstein if he approved the recordings which Pat claims."
The SD Rostra’s piece further criticized Lutz for releasing to media the names of a Santee couple he suspected of infiltrating the meeting and posting the tape on YouTube. According to SD Rostra, the couple has denied the accusation. The piece further cites unnamed Club members disappointed with Lutz “heavy-handedness” in the incident.
In the latest round of controversy, Kvaric and private investigator Derrick Roach held a press conference this week to announce that Roach found large quantities of records discarded by ACORN in National City several days before a visit from the Attorney General’s office. (http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/2009/nov/24/documents-are-found-acorn... )The investigator alleges that records included confidential personal data and further revealed a partisan agenda. ACORN has responded by stating that most of the records were outdated voter registration files and further, that removal of confidential records from its trash constitutes theft. ACORN has asked to have the records returned.
Lutz and other prominent Democrats have contended that the attacks on ACORN are politically motivated. Some prominent Obama supporters are associated with ACORN, which has also been a powerhouse at registering mostly-poor voters .
“ACORN should have shredded the papers,” Lutz acknowledged. But he added, “The Republicans want to make it sound like ACORN was trying to hide something. Wouldn’t they shred everything if that were the case?” He said he has reviewed the tape of political operatives posing as a pimp and prostitute. “ It is a case of hidden-camera play acting to create the impression that ACORN normally works with hookers and pimps, which they do not,” he said, adding that he did not believe any laws were broken by the employee shown in the video.
Lutz faulted media for focusing on controversies without also reporting ACORN’s positive actions to help the poor. President Obama has drawn attention to ACORN's comunity organizing efforts, which aim to help low-income individuals in issues ranging from education to housing, also covering issues such as minimum wage increases and halting predatory lending pratices. (See "What is Acorn? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLCSnbN1lRI)
“Now, all we hear about is Republican money laundering, dumpster-diving, and playacting as hookers and pimps,” Lutz concluded. “ Jerry Brown should add this to his investigation of the local Republican Party.”