The four men accused of trying to tamper with Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office phones share a common experience as young ideologues writing for conservative publications.
Federal authorities said two of the men posed as telephone workers wearing hard hats, tool belts and flourescent vests when they walked into the senator’s office inside a federal building in New Orleans on Monday. The other two were accused of helping to organize the plan.
The most well-known of the suspects is James O’Keefe, a 25-year-old whose hidden-camera expose posing as a pimp with his prostitute infuriated the liberal group ACORN and made him a darling of conservatives.
O’Keefe and suspect Joseph Basel, 24, formed their own conservative publications on their college campuses. A third suspect, Stan Dai, 24, served as editor of his university’s conservative paper and once directed a program aimed at getting college students interested in the intelligence field after 9/11.
And the fourth suspect, Robert Flanagan, 24, wrote for the conservative Pelican Institute and had recently criticized Landrieu for her vote on health care legislation. O’Keefe was a featured speaker at a Pelican Institute luncheon days before his arrest. Flanagan is the son of the acting U.S. Attorney for northern Louisiana.
It’s not yet clear whether the plan was a prank intended to be captured on camera or a more serious attempt at political espionage, as claimed by state Democrats who dubbed it “Louisiana Watergate.”
A witness told authorities that O’Keefe was already sitting in the waiting area of the office and appeared to record Basel and Flanagan on his cell phone when they arrived posing as phone workers.
A federal law enforcement official said one of the suspects was picked up in a car a couple of blocks away with a listening device that could pick up transmissions. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was not part of the FBI affidavit. Another official said Dai was the suspect arrested outside.
All four suspects 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.
“It was poor judgment,” Flanagan’s lawyer, Garrison Jordan, said. “I don’t think there was any intent or motive to commit a crime.”
The men were released on bond and were scheduled to return to the court Wednesday morning for private appointments with the pretrial services department, which handles arrangements with defendants before trial.
O’Keefe said only “Veritas,” Latin for truth, as he left jail Tuesday with Dai and Basel. All declined to comment.
As he got into a cab outside, O’Keefe said, “The truth shall set me free.”
His father, James O’Keefe, Jr., of Westwood, N.J., said he hadn’t spoken to his son in several days and didn’t know he traveled to New Orleans, let alone why he went to Landrieu’s office.
“That would not be something that I can even imagine him doing,” he said. “I think this is going to be blown out of proportion.”
The allegations were quickly condemned by Democrats and ACORN, the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now. Its political affiliates have registered hundreds of thousands of voters in urban and other poor areas of the country.
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.”
Using a hidden camera last year, O’Keefe, posed as a pimp and brought a young woman posing as a prostitute to 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 an e-mail 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.”
Flanagan is the only suspect who lives in Louisiana. Basel is from Minnesota; O’Keefe, New Jersey; and Dai, the D.C.-Virginia area. But they shared similar backgrounds in their work to promote conservative views.
Flanagan recently criticized Landrieu for her vote on the Senate health care bill after securing a Medicaid provision estimated in value at up to $365 million for Louisiana. Conservatives accused her of selling her vote but she insisted no “special deals” were made.
“Do not be fooled into believing Landrieu is helping the state of Louisiana,” Flanagan wrote in a Nov. 25 post on the Pelican Institute’s Web site. “If the proposed healthcare legislation were to be signed into law, the $300 million allocated to Louisiana will pale in comparison to the long-term debt Louisiana citizens will ultimately shoulder.”
His father, Bill, is the acting U.S. Attorney based in Shreveport. He was first assistant under Republican President George W. Bush appointee Donald Washington before Washington stepped down this month. President Barack Obama recently nominated Stephanie A. Finley for the post. Bill Flanagan’s office declined to comment.
Dai is a former assistant director of a program at Trinity Washington University that taught students about careers in intelligence, university president Patricia McGuire said. It was part of a national effort to interest students at liberal arts colleges in careers in intelligence but did not teach spy craft, she said.
He was listed as a “freelance consultant” in a Junior Statesmen program at the Central Intelligence Agency where he appeared as a speaker.
O’Keefe and Basel were also active in conservative publications at their respective colleges, Rutgers University and the University of Minnesota-Morris. They gave a joint interview Jan. 14 to CampusReform.org, a Web site that supports college conservatives on student publications.
“I happen to call what I do shoe leather journalism and not advocacy journalism,” he was quoted as saying in the interview. “So, I would consider it just journalism.”
Associated Press Writers Brett J. Blackledge and Kevin McGill in New Orleans, Pete Yost in Washington, Justin Pritchard in Los Angeles and Ben Nuckols in Baltimore contributed to this report.
Pelican Institute: http://www.pelicaninstitute.org/
U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s official site: http://landrieu.senate.gov/