On Monday morning, Joseph Basel and Robert Flanagan, both age 24, dressed up as telephone company workers and walked into the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). Inside the office, waiting for them, was James O’Keefe, the 25-year-old conservative activist who posed as a pimp in 2009 for a series of undercover videos that badly damaged the national community organization ACORN. As Basel and Flanagan clumsily worked on the phones, O’Keefe was recording them for a reason that remains unknown. When the “repairmen” and accomplices were asked for ID, they gave themselves up and were arrested.
In an affidavit detailing the bungled sting operation, FBI Agent Steven Rayes argued that “there is probable cause to believe that Flanagan and Basel by false and fraudulent pretense attempted to enter, and did in fact enter, real property belonging to the United States” in order to bug phones, and that they were “aided and abetted” by O’Keefe and a 24-year-old activist named Stan Dai. One day later, the botched operation has become national news, an embarrassment that could tarnish the conservative media that turned O’Keefe’s ACORN stings into a national sensation. While O’Keefe, Basel, Flanagan, and Dai were released on $10,000 bonds, they face up to 10 years in prison if found guilty of “entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony.” The scandal marks a swift and staggering downfall for an activist who had been praised for months for doing the work the “mainstream media” wouldn’t do in exposing sloppy and illegal work by ACORN.
“If he’s done what it’s said he’s done,” said Seton Motley, director of communications at the conservative Media Research Center, “the left-wing media is going to be all over him in a way they weren’t when he did the ACORN investigation. They’re going to love pounding him on this.”
Motley didn’t excuse the charges against O’Keefe. “People can do good things and bad things,” said Motley. “James O’Keefe did a very good thing with the ACORN videos. If this is true, he did a very bad thing. I don’t think one cancels out the other.”
According to Robert Bluey, who investigated the “Rathergate” scandal for CNSNews in 2004 and who is now director of online strategy at the Heritage Foundation, with this stunt O’Keefe may have put himself in the company of fact-manufacturing journalists such as Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass.
“If you’re a journalist, you have to follow certain laws of ethics,” Bluey said. “If this is true, it clearly falls outside the bounds of journalistic ethics.”
Bluey was hopeful that O’Keefe’s scandal wouldn’t reflect poorly on other conservative journalists. “He made clear that he was not doing this from any ideological perspective.”
O’Keefe, a self-described “progressive radical” who studied the tactics of Saul Alinsky, made a name for himself at Rutgers University as the founder of a conservative newspaper and a producer of hidden camera stings of politically correct administrators. From 2006 through 2007 he worked for the Leadership Institute, training conservative students on how to start campus publications. In July and August 2009 he and 20-year-old activist Hannah Giles posed, respectively, as a pimp and prostitute seeking advice for cheating on their taxes from various ACORN employees across the country. Their investigation badly damaged ACORN and fueled a successful congressional effort to temporarily prevent the group from receiving any federal funds. O’Keefe and Giles quickly became conservative icons, sought-after speakers at Tea Party protests and events like The American Spectator’s annual dinner.
“Now James is a national conservative hero,” wrote Leadership Institute president Morton Blackwell in a October 15, 2009, blog post for CampusReform.org, “and I believe he will write his own ticket to a future career doing just what he loves to do.”
On Tuesday, conservatives scrambled to contain the damage from O’Keefe’s Louisiana debacle. Andrew Breitbart’s Big Government website hosted the ACORN tapes and pioneered a new breed of aggressive conservative investigative journalism. Mike Flynn, the editor-in-chief of Big Goverment, told TWI that the site was not working with O’Keefe; Flynn told libertarian Reason magazine that “unlike the left, I don’t believe the ends justify the means.”
In a statement to TWI and other media outlets, Breitbart said much the same thing.
“We have no knowledge about or connection to any alleged acts and events involving James O’Keefe at Senator Mary Landrieu’s office,” Breitbart said. “We only just learned about the alleged incident this afternoon. We have no information other than what has been reported publicly by the press.”
The potential blowback from the Landrieu sting extended to some Republican members of Congress. In October, Rep. Pete Olson (R-Tex.) introduced a resolution honoring “the fact-finding reporting done by Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe III.” The resolution credited the two activists with “exemplary actions as government watchdogs and young journalists uncovering wasteful government spending” and asked for the House to officially honor them and “transmit an enrolled copy” of the resolution to them. Thirty-one other Republicans co-sponsored the resolution. On Tuesday night, Olson gave TWI a statement criticizing O’Keefe’s actions while maintaining that the ACORN sting had performed a valuable service.
“Individuals who lawfully expose wrongful activities by an entity like ACORN receiving federal tax dollars should be praised,” said Olson. However, if recent events conclude that any laws were broken in the incident in Senator Landrieu’s office – that is not something I condone. Citizens have an important role in helping to expose waste and/or fraud when their tax dollars are being spent, but it must be done in a lawful manner.”
ACORN deputy director Kevin Whelan pounced on the story as “further evidence of [O’Keefe’s] disregard for the law in pursuit of his extremist agenda.” According to Whelan, it was more evidence that O’Keefe’s original videos “had been shot illegally and edited deceptively in order to undermine the work of an organization that has empowered working families for four decades.”
While attention is beginning to spread to O’Keefe’s lesser-known accomplices, it’s the apparent downfall of a conservative journalistic star that is leading TV and newspaper reports on the botched sting. On the way out of a Louisiana courthouse, O’Keefe’s first statement to the media was “veritas”–Latin for “truth,” and half of the name of his video company, Veritas Visuals.
“The truth,” said O’Keefe, “shall set me free.”