ACORN’s Dilemma and Ours

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Quick, what’s the difference between Triantafilitsa Mattfeld and Dale Rathke?

Both were caught embezzling money from their nonprofit organizations, Mattfeld $180,000 from the Navy Elementary School PTA in Fairfax County, Virginia, Rathke exactly $948,607.50 while he was handling the books for ACORN, the nation’s premier community-based organizing and advocacy network founded by his brother Wade Rathke who also served until June as ACORN’s Chief Organizer.

Both reached agreements with their organizations to make some sort of financial restitution, Mattfeld pledging $75,000 after having put an additional $80,000 back into the PTA’s accounts in the previous five years, Rathke’s family making $30,000 a year payments since 2001, for a total of $210,000 according to the New York Times with an anonymous donor pledging to pay the remaining balance.

The differences are more than how much they pilfered and how much they or their families and supporters are pledged to repay.

Characterized in court as “morbidly obese,” dependent on a breathing machine, and suffering from heart problems and chronic asthma, Mattfeld was sentenced to a year in jail for her financial perfidy (though because of her health she’ll probably serve her time in home detention with electronic monitoring). In the press to date, it appears that Dale Rathke is facing no legal action whatsoever.

Besides his ACORN-related duties, Dale Rathke is sometimes found in the society pages of New Orleans newspapers participating in cultural and fundraising events. Whether or not the embarrassment of publicity compels Rathke to scale back his extracurricular activities is unknown. Mattfeld on the other hand has not been a fixture in the society pages of the Washington Post or the Fairfax County Times, and it’s not hard to guess that she won’t be in the future wearing her new police-supplied ankle bracelet.

There are other differences. Mattfeld was an unpaid volunteer at the PTA. Rathke was an employee, paid “about” $38,000 a year for his job with ACORN (not including what else he might have earned as salary from Citizens Consulting, the accounting and bookkeeping services firm, co-located with ACORN, where Rathke worked) until he was terminated this year, a decade after the embezzlement.

In Fairfax County, 400 parents and community members signed a petition asking the judge to impose “substantial punishment” on Mattfeld for plundering the local PTA accounts.

Although Rathke’s perfidy was known to a group of insiders in ACORN who agreed to the restitution plan, ACORN’s 400,000 member families in 1,200 ACORN chapters were apparently unaware of what went on and apparently did not have an opportunity to demand or ask for legal action against him. The official statement on the ACORN website soft-pedals Rathke’s crime with the euphemism “misappropriated” rather than “embezzled” or “stole.”

One more difference. The court noted what the PTA might have been able to accomplish had Mattfeld not stolen the money: field trips, books, special instructors, playground equipment, computers for the kids at the school. Mattfeld told PTA members that the organization was financially strapped and unable to pay for these things during the five years she filched the money.

The press coverage suggests that Rathke’s thievery was discovered a decade ago, but there is no information so far that reveals just how long it took him to steal $1 million (through credit card expenditures and the like) and what programs and activities ACORN had to forego during that time.

Rathke’s hometown paper, the Times-Picayune, appears to have ignored the New York Times coverage of this story to date. For Triantafilitsa Mattfeld, the Washington Post’s metro section story gave details of her conviction plus her mugshot supplied by the Fairfax County Police. .

These are tragic stories. One can only imagine the torment of ACORN co-founder Wade Rathke that his own brother ripped off his organization. For a decade or so, they lived with the secret and suppressed the information within ACORN to all but a few insiders, protecting him and the organization from the critical scrutiny that will now ensue. The public statement on the ACORN website from ACORN president Maude Hurd announcing Wade Rathke’s resignation as ACORN’s Chief Organizer (though not from ACORN International) includes no statement from Dale Rathke apologizing as he should to the ACORN membership for his actions.

Mattfeld’s statement to the court, ostensibly apologizing to her family and the community, somehow failed to acknowledge that she actually stole the nonprofit’s money. In her warped sense of things, she concocted an explanation that she had been trying to “fix” the PTA finances by somehow moving money in and out of her own personal bank accounts. Just like ACORN where a few insiders “knew” about the Dale Rathke events, it is hard to believe that Mattfeld’s family and maybe even some other officers of the PTA were completely unaware that their access to tens of thousands of dollars didn’t come from her control of the PTA’s books.

In both cases, the malefactors had enablers who appear to have looked the other way or covered up. Enabling behavior rarely if ever helps the wrongdoers come to terms with their offenses to family, community, and colleagues.

ACORN’s efforts to tighten up its financial controls to prevent future Dale Rathke repeats is late, but necessary and appropriate. The Rathke imbroglio does not mean that politically progressive advocacy organizations need to be “squeaky clean,” meeting a higher standard of ethical behavior than other nonprofit or for-profit organizations, as some commentators have implied. Fundamentally, the advocacy-oriented national ACORN and service-focused local PTAs have to be clean, that’s it. Stealing tax exempt funds that might have gone for school supplies from the PTA or mortgage counseling or voter registration delivered by ACORN, it doesn’t matter, it’s simply and thoroughly wrong.