WASHINGTON — The community organizing group ACORN said Wednesday it is ordering an independent investigation after its employees were caught on camera appearing to advise a couple posing as a prostitute and pimp to lie about the woman's profession to get housing help.
The group, which came under fire from conservatives for alleged voter fraud in 2008, said it is refusing new admissions into its service programs.
The group, which advocates for poor people, conducted a massive voter registration effort last year and became a target of conservatives when some employees were accused of submitting false registration forms with names such as "Mickey Mouse." ACORN has said only a handful of employees submitted false registration forms and did so in a bid to boost their pay.
ACORN will work with its advisory council, which includes prominent supporters of President Barack Obama, such as John Podesta, president of the nonprofit Center for American Progress, and Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, to name an independent auditor and investigator, ACORN chief executive Bertha Lewis said in a written statement.
The investigation will examine all the systems and processes called into question by the video, Lewis said.
In addition, ACORN won't accept new admissions into its community service programs, effective immediately, and within the next few days will conduct staff training, she said.
Lewis said the steps were being taken in response to "the indefensible action of a handful of our employees."
The moves are among several developments in recent days involving ACORN, a liberal-leaning group that is a popular target for Republicans. In addition to the hidden-camera video, it is under scrutiny for several voter-registration fraud cases.
Some Republicans are urging the Justice Department to investigate ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now . The Senate voted Monday to block the Housing and Urban Development Department from giving grants to ACORN, and the Census Bureau last week severed its ties with the group for the 2010 national head-count.
Asked Wednesday about the controversy, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said that "obviously the conduct that you see on those tapes is completely unacceptable."
"I think everyone would agree with that. The administration takes accountability extremely seriously," Gibbs said. "I think the Census Bureau evaluated and determined that this group could not meet the bureau's goal of achieving a fair and accurate count in 2010."
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., said he's asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repeal a nearly $1 million grant it awarded to ACORN earlier this month.
FEMA awarded $997,402 to ACORN in New Orleans on Sept. 4 as part of its Fire Prevention and Safety Grants program. The group plans to use the money to assess fire safety in the homes of low and moderate-income families and hand out smoke and carbon monoxide detectors and other fire prevention gear, ACORN's Brennan Griffin said.
FEMA had no immediate comment on Bilirakis' request.
Gibbs said he assumed that federal agencies "constantly evaluate to ensure that any grantee is living up to what has to happen in order to fulfill that grant application."
The video released Monday was among several that have prompted the firing of at least four ACORN employees in Baltimore and Washington. It was created by James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles and posted on BigGovernment.com, where O'Keefe identifies himself as an activist filmmaker.
In the film, O'Keefe and Giles enter an ACORN office in Brooklyn and O'Keefe can be heard stating that "we have a unique life situation" and asking if the pair qualify for housing help.
The ACORN housing coordinator and office administrator apparently urge the couple to lie about the woman's profession, with the housing coordinator suggesting that the woman launder the money.
"We have all been deeply disturbed by what we've seen in some of these videos," Lewis said, adding that the group "will go to whatever lengths necessary to re-establish the public trust."
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called on California Attorney General Jerry Brown to investigate ACORN's activities in the state. The most recent hidden-camera videos came from San Diego and San Bernardino and feature two filmmakers posing as a pimp and a prostitute and asking ACORN workers for advice.
Brown spokesman Scott Gerber said the attorney general's office would review the video and investigate or refer it to the local district attorney if it is believed there is any wrongdoing.
The Los Angeles office of ACORN said Wednesday that the filmmakers had tried to shoot a similar video there in July, but "highly suspicious" ACORN staffers asked them to leave.
"We are hoping that the behavior of a handful of employees and these doctored tapes do not overshadow the actual, effective and critical work ACORN is doing on a daily basis," said Millicent Hill, a member of Los Angeles ACORN.
Associated Press writers Ben Feller and Eileen Sullivan in Washington contributed to this report.
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