ACORN San Diego: Mucha Dificultad Sobre Nada

This weekend, I watched the New York City ACORN “sting” videos, and found:
(T)his one not only shows no evidence of ACORN employees abetting illegal activity at the New York City office, it presents quite the opposite picture. The parting admonishment that “it’s your business how you want to live, but live well” is anything but criminal.

Nor should the ACORN employees in these videos feel the least bit embarrassed. If there is anything embarrassing about these videos, it is James and Hannah.

Today, I finally got around to watching the San Diego videos, and once again there’s a Faux Edit™ going on. Apparently, that’s a habit with filmmaker James O’Keefe, the “pimp” in these videos. The first minute is going to make you squirm, but then the video will start at the beginning and you’ll get a completely different sense of context:

ACORN worker Juan Carlos Vera — who was fired subsequent to this video’s release — welcomes the odd couple into his office. Immediately, Hannah Giles explains that she has underage girls coming from El Salvador. Juan visibly attempts to cover his surprise.

“This is confidential, right?” James asks. Of course it’s confidential — ACORN isn’t a law enforcement agency. Nor is Juan trained in investigative procedure. He is out of his depth and knows it.

The couple outlines a smuggling operation in advanced stages of planning. As they describe their idea to put up “a dozen or so” underage prostitutes in a house, Juan covers his mouth with his hand and avoids eye contact. Hannah and James portray a sense of urgency:

“The girls are coming this weekend, that’s why we’re in an emergency situation, that’s why we like ran in here for help, because I wanna get them before the pimp has time to bond with them and you know, herd them away.”

There are cuts in the video. Having worked with hidden microcameras in direct contact interviews, I can safely say this is not accidental. One cannot operate the record/pause function without betraying what they’re doing. Again, O’Keefe makes some interesting editing choices. One hint of what might be missing comes from Juan Carlos Vera’s statement to a local TV reporter:

Vera said he was told the woman needed to escape her controlling pimp, who wouldn’t let her start a new life.

Immediately, Vera said he offered to call the police but the filmmaker quickly stopped him.

“Don’t call the police because I’m gonna be a lawyer,” O’Keefe said in the video.

Is this what’s missing from the video? We may never know. What we do see is Juan continuing to avoid eye contact and concentrating on his cell phone. This is the sort of meeting-room behavior clients normally despise, a subliminal message that the mind is elsewhere. Here, it is a defense against involvement with a conversation over illegal activity.

Juan warns the couple that ACORN is working with the District Attorney’s office. Nevertheless, James presses for some advice on crossing the border by land, even though Hannah has already described a sea entry. Would Tijuana be better?

Juan hesitates. He makes no commitments, even when he shrugs and says that he has “contacts” in Tijuana. He is non-specific. One may read the worst into this and determine that Juan is going to smuggle underage prostitutes into the United States, but there is no way to know why he is being so evasive.

Above all, it should be pointed out that Juan — who lost his job over this video — never agrees to help them break the law.

There is another edit at this point. Juan is giving James his own contact information. Yet another cut, and we are on the stairs, out of the office, where a whole new conversation is taking place on informal terms. In spite of his affable manner — “trust the Mexican people,” he says — Juan is agitated. His arms are crossed and he keeps scratching.

“How much do you charge?” He asks Hannah. “What about cops?” Making no propositions, and without turning face-on to James, Juan’s manner doesn’t suggest a personal interest so much as an amateur interview. In a strange way, the tables have turned: James and Hannah are the ones being interrogated now.

“I always get out of stuff,” Hannah replies.

Juan asks “because I have friends, cops, working in the…”

“You’re not gonna go tell your DA friends?” James asks.

Juan looks away and deflects the question. His nonverbal agitation grows even as his voice remains jovial. He invites the couple to return to the office for an “immigration event” that weekend — an invitation James and Hannah seem to make more of than Juan does.

James ends with a direct question: “you’ll help us get em across the border?”

Juan still does not commit himself. “Trust the Mexican people,” he says, and shakes hands.

At no time is any paperwork filled out. At no time does Juan actually agree to help with any illegal activity. At no time does he offer specific advice — even the vague notion that he has contacts in Tijuana doesn’t amount to anything criminal. If he simply refuses to offer an opinion, he may very well lose contact with the couple.

And that is the central question here. Why would he offer his own contact information and accept theirs? Why would he invite them back to the ACORN office? Again, Juan Carlos Vera offers a clue to the local news:

In a press conference Thursday at ACORN’s National City headquarters, Vera said statements he made in the video were taken out of context.

The now-former ACORN worker said he was merely trying to help the pair because he thought they were in danger.

“I never done anything wrong in my life,” Vera said. “They destroyed my family.”

Indeed, the whole purpose of ACORN is service to America’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Not only is Juan Carlos Vera’s behavior inconsistent with criminal habits, it screams of a desire to help two young people who seem to be in very deep trouble.

Nor should he be the least bit embarrassed by this video. In fact, everything embarrassing comes from Hannah and James. THEY are the ones who walked into this office with a crazy story about smuggling underage prostitutes from El Salvador. THEY are the ones reading intentions into the situation. NONE of this comes from Juan or the organization he worked for.

Having watched two videos, I have yet to see an ACORN employee break the law or offer to help O’Keefe and Giles break the law. But I have seen the following quote from O’Keefe:

James O’Keefe, one of the two filmmakers, said he went after ACORN because it registers minorities likely to vote against Republicans: “Politicians are getting elected single-handedly due to this organization,” O’Keefe told The Washington Post. “No one was holding this organization accountable.”

The more I find out, the more this “scoop” looks like a partisan fiasco.

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About Matt Osborne

Veteran blogging the culture wars from Alabama. Video journalist, mash-up artist, aspiring novelist, and metalhead. Expect bunnies, geekery, dark humor, and snarky empirical analysis to annoy idealists of all stripes. You can follow me on Twitter, but be ready 'cause it might get loud.
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  • (O)CT(O)PUS

    Rachel Maddow reported on Acorn last night, the gist of which: For years, Acorn has been the target of right wing smears about alleged voter registration fraud – none of which have ever been proved. According to law, Acorn must report incidents of fraud (and they do), but every time they report such incidents, Republicans accuse them of being the perpetrators when, in fact, Acorn is merely performing a job as required by law.

    Acorn registers mostly minority voters who usually vote for Democratic candidates. That is why Karl Rove tried to suppress these efforts. Federal prosecutor scandal who refused to file charges against Acorn got fired.

    The Republicans smear machine has been relentless; yet the MSM fails to accurately report the truth in the matter. This time, the bastards won … Acorn lost Federal funding.

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