Lost in the Archives

Library reading room at the Wisconsin Historical Society
Library reading room at the Wisconsin Historical Society

Madison   Somehow I thought a week would be more than enough to go through the ACORN archives at the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison, Wisconsin. Now at the midpoint I feel like I’m trapped somewhere between 1970 and 1985 and can’t get out for the life of me. It’s all a unique, interesting, somewhat unsettling, and bizarre experience.

Going into the archive waiting and working area is a little like being a visitor in a jail. You sign in and show your ID, logging your time of entry. You have to lock up your belongings in a locker or closet. They don’t exactly frisk you for sharp objects, but they definitely require you to stow your pens and issue you a pencil if you must write something down. In a funny way it makes sense of course. They don’t want folks to walk away with historical documents that they are storing for safekeeping obviously, nor do they want them defaced or marked. To keep the prison analogy going you also have to put in a request to see a specific box, which they then disappear into the bottom floors of the building and return later and issue to you.

Around 1990 when I had a brief stay as the “activist in residence” for almost a month at the University of Wisconsin, and my friend and comrade, Professor Joel Rogers, introduced me to the people at the society because they had a renowned “Social Change Collection.” Many of the civil rights organizations had their records here. I knew the National Welfare Rights Organization, where I had once worked, had their records here. The famous Highlander Center in Tennessee had all of their records here. I had also had no success in reaching out to the University of Arkansas or their branch in Little Rock to get them to agree to take ACORN’s records with any interest and the same story had been repeated at the University of New Orleans. The final deciding point had been that the historical society was funded directly by the state legislature and in 1990 that sealed the deal because it seemed in the pre-Walker era to mean that they would always receive adequate support to maintain the records, which is a must for archives.

Once the deal was made, we would start shipping records up to them via UPS, but I had never actually been back to see what was happening or how the whole thing was set up. I was here now thinking I could go through them somewhat quickly and gather material for a book of “readings” collected from old memoranda and reports that would give an original source look at how ACORN had been built and operated. It’s turning out to be a much harder task than I had imagined. The records are kept based on when they are received, so I’m trapped in boxes and boxes from the first 15 years. The database doesn’t even acknowledge any records from 2008 on, because they still have not been accessed into the system. Of course since the records came from many different locations and the idiosyncratic filing or non-filing system of many field offices, organizers, researchers, lawyers, and others, there are duplications galore and trails that dead end quickly.

None of that is the fault of the collection or the archivist here, but for my task it’s all somewhat frustrating. Finding something interesting means walking over to the scanner and putting the document through page by page so that it emerges as a PDF on a thumbdrive. Then a record of the file needs to be typed in the computer with a title, the file needs to be labeled accordingly on the drive, and transferred to a larger hard drive. You get the picture?

So, I have two days left now, and I’m already reassessing and doing triage to see whether there’s a way to move more quickly or stay the course, box by box. At some point just like reading the newspaper, I’ll just have to look for the pictures to tell another story.

Making history is one thing, but leaving records so that the history can be assembled at some point is quite another I’m finding.

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Wells Fargo Racial Steering and Discrimination Settlement with Justice Department

New Orleans    The recently announced settlement between the Department of Justice and Wells Fargo Bank saw them pony up $174 Million to provide restitution to 34,000 customers because of racial discrimination in lending rates and steering them into toxic subprime rates caught my eye and brought me to full attention.  This might be a case of justice delayed not having been denied.

Some years ago with ACORN after settling with Ameriquest (remember them?) and HSBC on predatory lending, Wells Fargo had come into our sights as the next biggest offender.  We found a zillion cases of families who would have been eligible for lower interest conventional loans that had ended up in subprime disasters and a lot more.  The highlight of ACORN’s National Convention in 2004 had been a march of 1500 to their skyscraper in Los Angeles only blocks away from the stunningly dramatic opera building designed by Frank Gehry.   There we handed Wells executives copies of the suit we had just filed against them on these grounds.  Based on a lot of factors including a change in various laws around class actions we finally ended up settling on a California-only basis for thousands there to receive restitution and agreement on “best practices” that would be implemented by Wells to prevent this from happening in the future.

Almost exactly one year ago in July 2011 Wells Fargo settled with the Federal Reserve for over $80 million for essentially ignoring everything that they had committed to in our settlement from 2004 to 2008.  Now one year later and almost $100 million more they are having to settle with Justice on a pattern of discrimination and steering, which would have also been precisely what they swore to us they were not doing once again.

I reached out to Sarah Siskind with Minor, Barnhill out of Chicago and Madison, who along with Neil McCarthy of San Francisco, had represented ACORN on the Wells matter as well as the earlier HSBC settlement.  My questions were:  How did Justice get them and was there anything we would have missed earlier?  Sarah speculated that with Justice records subpoena power they were able in all likelihood get access to all of Well’s borrower “profile” data including credit scores and crunch the numbers to more clearly see – and prove –the pattern or discrimination and steering by Wells into higher interest “products.”   In 2004 we only got lip service from Bush’s Justice Department on the issues.  Having a real Justice Department now obviously makes a difference because it means real investigations that even the “stonewall first” mantra of the Wells legal team and outside attorneys can’t prevent.

Of course in the Wall Street Journal Wells goes out of its way to continue to deny with every breath that they were really involved in any racial discrimination.  They seemed to have invoked the famous Richard Pryor defense:  “Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?”

Sarah said that some were saying Justice might have settled to quickly and cheaply with “non-admissions” language, but that didn’t trouble her, and it doesn’t trouble me either.  What troubles me as we look more and more at banking in the light of other “criminal enterprises” is that this repeated litigation and settlements with ACORN before 2004 and now with both the Federal Reserve (in what was a record settlement for them 1-year ago!) and now with the Department of Justice is also evidence of a culture of discrimination and a management system that supports and encourages any means necessary, including possible racial bias, to achieve short term goals.

Somewhere in their bunker by the Bay, Wells executives need to finally learn a lesson that they seem to want to assiduously avoid no matter the hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and clean house to rid themselves of this continuing taint of bias and discrimination.

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