NEW ORLEANS – A hero of conservatives who bruised the liberal group ACORN by posing as a pimp on hidden camera is now accused of orchestrating an attempt to tamper with phone lines at Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu's office inside a federal building.
It's not clear what James O'Keefe, 25, and three other suspects were trying to accomplish Monday at the New Orleans office of Landrieu, who has been criticized for securing more Medicaid benefits for her state in exchange for her support on health care legislation.
It sounded like a Watergate-style operation, but federal officials have not said why the men wanted to interfere with Landrieu's phones, whether they were successful, or even whether the goal was political espionage. All four have been involved in conservative politics in the past.
A staff member in the office told the FBI that two of the suspects, including the son of an acting U.S. attorney, wore white hardharts, tool belts, and fluorescent vests and said they needed to fix a problem with the phone system.
O'Keefe was sitting in the waiting area and recorded the men on his cell phone when they walked in, according to an FBI affidavit.
One of the suspects was picked up in a car a couple of blocks away with a listening device that could pick up transmissions, said a federal law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was not part of the FBI affidavit.
O'Keefe said "veritas," Latin for truth, as he left jail Tuesday with suspects Stan Dai and Joseph Basel, both 24. All declined to comment.
"There will be a time for that," Dai said.
As O'Keefe got into a cab outside the jail, he said, "The truth shall set me free." His biography on a Web site where he blogs says he works at VeritasVisuals.com, though that Web site is not working now.
The fourth suspect, Robert Flanagan, the son of Shreveport-based acting U.S. Attorney Bill Flanagan, was released earlier Tuesday. His father's office declined comment.
All four were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Only Flanagan lives in Louisiana. Basel is from Minnesota; O'Keefe, New Jersey; and Dai, the D.C-Virginia area.
"It was poor judgment," Flanagan's lawyer, Garrison Jordan, said in a brief interview outside the courtroom. "I don't think there was any intent or motive to commit a crime."
The allegations quickly inspired allegations of a "Louisiana Watergate" from state Democrats and claims of vindication at ACORN, which lost its affiliation with the U.S. Census Bureau and federal funding after the uproar over O'Keefe's videos.
Landrieu, who was in Washington at the time, said in a statement Tuesday that the plot was "unsettling" for her and her staff. She said she looked forward to the investigation to learn their motives.
O'Keefe's arrest "is further evidence of his disregard for the law in pursuit of his extremist agenda," ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis said in a statement. The organization's Twitter feed commented on the news: "Couldn't have happened to a more deserving soul."
O'Keefe managed to do what Republicans have been trying to for years — hurt the political affiliates of ACORN, which have registered hundreds of thousands of voters in urban and other poor areas of the country.
Using a hidden camera, O'Keefe, posing as a pimp and accompanied by a young woman posing as a prostitute, shot videos in ACORN offices where staffers appeared to offer illegal tax advice and to support the misuse of public funds and illegal trafficking in children.
The videos were first posted on biggovernment.com, a site run by conservative Andrew Breitbart. In the past, Breitbart has said O'Keefe — now a paid contributor to biggovernment.com — is an independent filmmaker, not an employee.
In a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press, Breitbart said: "We have no knowledge about or connection to any alleged acts and events involving James O'Keefe at Senator Mary Landrieu's office. We only just learned about the alleged incident this afternoon. We have no information other than what has been reported publicly by the press. Accordingly, we simply are not in a position to make any further comment."
ACORN calls itself the largest grass roots community organization of low- and moderate-income people in the country, claiming over 400,000 families, more than 1,200 neighborhood chapters in about 75 cities.
Until the controversy last year over the videos at ACORN offices, 10 percent of ACORN's funds came from federal government grants. In September, Congress blocked previously approved funds from going to the group.
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