(Photo: Luca Rossini / Flickr)
Federal law enforcement officials on Monday arrested conservative filmmaker James O'Keefe and three other men for allegedly attempting to tamper with the phone system in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's New Orleans office.
Also arrested was Robert Flanagan, 24, son of the acting US Attorney in western Louisiana, William Flanagan.
O'Keefe is the amateur documentarian who, along with Townhall.com columnist Hannah Giles posed as a couple planning to buy a house for use as a brothel and getting advice from a few ACORN employees, rather than being turned away.
The pair filmed their meetings at ACORN offices with a hidden camera, producing a video that brought to a fever pitch the long-simmering Republican war against ACORN. The video was trumpeted by Fox News and other right-wing news outlets, starting a stampede in the mainstream press and in Congress, where a majority of panicked Democrats joined the herd in approving legislation to strip ACORN of federal funds.
O'Keefe, Giles and others have since been sued by ACORN. The group claims one of the hidden camera videos was recorded in violation of Maryland state law, where one of the videos was filmed, which says the party being recorded must consent.
ACORN officials told Truthout that in addition to the lawsuit they have been trying to get law enforcement officials to prosecute O'Keefe, Giles and other defendants named in the civil suit for alleged violations of state wiretapping laws.
Now O'Keefe faces federal criminal charges for allegedly violating similar laws.
According to an affidavit filed Monay by FBI Special Agent Steven Rayes, O'Keefe, Flanagan and two other suspects, Stan Dai and Joseph Basel, also 24, "entered and attempted to gain entrance to the office and telephone system of United States Senator Mary Landrieu, located in the Hale Boggs Federal Building...for the purpose of interfering with the office's telephone system."
"The individuals did so by falsely and fraudulently representing that the were employees of a telephone company," the affidvait states. "Subsequent investigation determined that James O'Keefe and Stan Dai aided and abetted Flanagan and Basel in the execution of the plan."
The FBI charged the men with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony, which the affidavit says they confessed to.
According to a report in The Times-Picayune, the four men appeared before a federal magistrate Tuesday wearing red prison garb. They were released on $10,000 bond. The Time-Picayune report said Dai was the editor-in-chief of the GW Patriot, an alternative conservative student newspaper, when he attended The George Washington University in 2006.
According to information Dai posted in September 2007 on the university's online alumni directory, he lived in Naperville, Ill., helped run a "Defense Dept. regional defense counterterrorism/irregular warfare program" and then became assistant director of the Intelligence Community Center of Academic Excellence at Trinity Washington University, which prepares undergraduates for careers in intelligence.
Marcy Wheeler noted in a post published on her blog that from January to April 2009, Robert Flanagan interned for Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Oklahoma). Fallin, Wheeler said, "is one of just 31 Representatives who co-sponsored a resolution honoring James O’Keefe and his ACORN-filming accomplice, Hannah Giles. (Fallin was joined on the resolution by such notables as Joe Barton, Louis Gohmert, Steve King, and Jean Schmidt.)"
When asked what motivated the men to launch a plot to tamper with the phone lines in the office of a sitting US senator, Flanagan's attorney, J. Garrison Jordan, told the Times-Picayune, "I think it was poor judgment. I don't think there was any intent or motive to commit a crime."
But according to the FBI affidavit, the plot was felonious and premeditated.
The affidavit says that around 11 am Monday Flanagan and Basel entered the Hale Boggs Federal Building dressed in blue denim pants, a blue workshirt, a light fluorescent green vest, a tool belt and carried white, construction-style hard hats and went to Landrieu's 10th floor office where O'Keefe had been waiting.
According to a Landrieu staffer identified in the affidavit as "Witness 1," O'Keefe said he "was waiting for someone to arrive."
"Witness 1 stated that upon entering Senator Landrieu's office, Flanagan and Basel represented to her that they were repair technicians from the telephone company and were there to fix problems with the telephone system," according to the affidavit. "Witness 1 further stated that when Flanagan and Basel entered the office O'Keefe positioned his cellular phone in his hand so as to record Flanagan and Basel.
"Basel requested to be given access to a telephone in the office, and Witness 1 allowed him access to the main telephone at the reception desk. Witness 1 observed Basel take the handset of the phone and manipulate it. Basel also tried to call the phone with a cellular phone in his possession. He stated that he could not get through. Soon thereafter, Flanagan used a cellular phone in his possession to call the phone that Basel held in his hand."
Flanagan and Basel then told Landrieu's staffer that they needed to do some repair work on the main telephone system and asked to be directed to the "telephone closet," located in the General Services Administration (GSA) office on the same floor.
Flanagan and Basel then spoke with a GSA employee and told this person they worked for the telephone company and needed to gain access to the telephone closet to perform repair work. When the GSA employee asked the men for identification the suspects said they left their credentials in their car.
They were arrested shortly thereafter. In a statement issued Tuesday evening, Landrieu said "this is a very unusual situation and somewhat unsettling for me and my staff.
"The individuals responsible have been charged with entering federal property under false pretenses for the purposes of committing a felony. I am as interested as everyone else about their motives and purpose, which I hope will become clear as the investigation moves forward."
In a statement sent to Truthout, ACORN chief executive Bertha Lewis said O'Keefe's arrest underscores that, in his "pursuit of his extremist agenda," he has a "total disregard for the law."
"From the day that O'Keefe's undercover 'sting' videos came out, ACORN leadership pledged accountability for its own staff while pointing out that the 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," Lewis said.
"Unfortunately, during the rush to judge ACORN, both the media and Congress failed to question the methods, intent and accuracy of Mr. O'Keefe's videos," she added.
Since the videos first aired, independent probes conducted by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and another conducted by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger cleared ACORN of wrongdoing.
In an exclusive on-camera interview with Truthout's Matt Renner last week, Lewis said O'Keefe "entrapped our gullible employees" and edited the videos in such a way that it appeared it was the employees who broke the law rather than the other way around.