Lawyer: Phone scheme meant to embarrass senator
NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Four conservative activists accused of trying to tamper with a senator’s phones were just trying to record embarrassing undercover video of her staff ignoring phone calls from constituents angry that she supported health care reform, one of their attorneys said Thurday.
The four, including activist James O’Keefe, known for posing as a pimp and using a hidden camera to target the community-organizing group ACORN, were arrested Monday after targeting Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in a New Orleans federal building.
Attorney J. Garrison Jordan denied they were trying to disable or wiretap the phones in Landrieu’s office.
“You’re dealing with kids,” he said. “I don’t think they thought it through that far.”
Instead, Jordan said, they hoped to get embarrassing video footage of Landrieu’s staff handling constituent calls. Her office received complaints last month that callers opposed to her health care stance couldn’t get through.
Landrieu was not impressed with Jordan’s explanation.
“Attorneys are hired to spin for their clients,” she said Thursday in an interview in Washington. “Good luck.”
Protesters marched in front of Landrieu’s office in Baton Rouge in December to criticize her support for Senate health care legislation and complain that they couldn’t get through on her office phones. Landrieu said at the time that her office received a high volume of calls.
“Our lines have been jammed for weeks, and I apologize,” Landrieu said in interview with The Advocate of Baton Rouge in December.
Jordan said his client, Robert Flanagan, the 24-year-old son of a federal prosecutor in Louisiana, did not intend to break the law when he went into the office posing as a telephone worker.
No matter their intentions, the four face the serious charge of entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, which carries up to 10 years in prison. They are free on $10,000 bail.
Investigators are aware of Jordan’s explanation, but are pressing ahead to see if that was indeed the men’s motive, a senior federal law enforcement official said Thursday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
Charged along with O’Keefe and Flanagan were Joseph Basel, 24, of Minnesota and Stan Dai, 24, of the Washington, D.C., area. The four are due back in court Feb. 12.
O’Keefe, Basel and Dai stayed with Benjamin Wetmore, a friend of O’Keefe’s, while they were in New Orleans. Wetmore, a 28-year-old law school student, was O’Keefe’s boss when he worked at the Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based program that trains conservative activists.
Wetmore declined to discuss their stay at his house and what they did while there. But he praised O’Keefe’s work targeting ACORN on his Web site and said he hired O’Keefe in 2006, helping him hone his undercover camera craft.
In an Oct. 16 blog post, Wetmore criticized the Leadership Institute, where he no longer works, for not supporting O’Keefe’s budding activism. Wetmore said he was “nearly fired for buying the initial video equipment that James used.”
O’Keefe last year became famous for his videos about ACORN, the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, which has affiliates that register voters in urban and other poor areas of the country. He used a hidden camera to record as he brought a young woman posing as a prostitute to the group’s offices.
In Monday’s incident, authorities said O’Keefe used his cell phone to try to capture video of two of his fellow defendants in Landrieu’s office before their arrest. The two posed as telephone repairmen – wearing fluorescent vests, tool belts and hard hats, one equipped with a hidden camera – and asked to see the phones at Landrieu’s office. The fourth is alleged to have waited outside in a car with a listening device that could pick up transmissions.
O’Keefe has declined to discuss what he and the others were doing in Landrieu’s office. But late Wednesday he told his Twitter followers that the government “concedes no attempt to wiretap.”
Andrew Breitbart, whose biggovernment.com site launched O’Keefe’s ACORN videos and who has since hired O’Keefe as a contributor, also downplayed the federal case.
“Their uniforms were outlandish,” Breitbart said in an interview. “This was like ‘Hee Haw,’ a blatant clown-nose-on spectacle to make a salient political yet mildly humorous point.”
O’Keefe hinted last week that he had a new, high-profile stunt in the works. Four days before he was charged in connection with the Landrieu incident, he promised his audience at a conservative think tank’s luncheon they would be hearing about a project he was working on in New Orleans.
He wouldn’t elaborate, according to people who heard his speech at the Pelican Institute’s event last Thursday in New Orleans.
Associated Press Writers Justin Pritchard in New Orleans and Ben Evans and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.
Pelican Institute: http://www.pelicaninstitute.org
Sen. Mary Landrieu’s official site: http://www.landrieu.senate.gov