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Correction to This Article
This article about the community organizing group ACORN incorrectly said that a conservative journalist targeted the organization for hidden-camera videos partly because its voter-registration drives bring Latinos and African Americans to the polls. Although ACORN registers people mostly from those groups, the maker of the videos, James E. O'Keefe, did not specifically mention them.

Duo in ACORN Videos Say Effort Was Independent

Video
The community organizing group ACORN says its ordering an independent investigation after its employees were caught on camera appearing to advise a couple posing as a prostitute and pimp to lie about the woman's profession to get housing help. Video by AP

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By Darryl Fears and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 18, 2009

The proposition was outrageous, outlandish, and right up James E. O'Keefe III's alley. Hannah Giles was on the phone from the District, and she was asking him to dress like her pimp, walk into the offices of the ACORN community activist group, openly admit to wanting to buy a house to run as a brothel, and see what happened.

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It was serendipity, O'Keefe said Thursday. On that day in May, he was still burning mad after watching a YouTube video of ACORN workers breaking padlocks off foreclosed homes and barging in. "I was upset," he said.

O'Keefe, 25, packed his grandfather's old wide-brimmed derby hat from his swing-dancing days, his grandmother's ratty chinchilla shoulder throw, and a cane he bought at a dollar store, then drove from his parents' home in northern New Jersey to the District to execute the idea with Giles, 20.

What happened next was a scandal that has shaken ACORN to its core. O'Keefe and Giles secretly videoed ACORN workers in the District, Brooklyn and Baltimore as they coached the secret filmmakers on how to evade taxes and misrepresent the nature of their business enterprise to get into a home.

In the wake of a public outcry over Giles and O'Keefe's videos, which went viral on YouTube and conservative Web sites last week, Congress has taken action. Thursday the House voted 345 to 75 to defund the organization, handing conservative Republicans a major victory. They have long seen the liberal group -- which offers housing and other services, including voter registration, to the poor -- as a shady operation devoted to electing liberals and siphoning off taxpayer money for a permanent underclass.

Republicans accused ACORN of voter-registration fraud in last year's presidential race. As a community organizer, President Obama worked for a group affiliated with ACORN and once represented ACORN as a lawyer. This week White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said that "obviously the conduct that you see on those tapes is unacceptable."

On Wednesday ACORN chief executive Bertha Lewis announced an independent review of its operations. It also has fired some who were caught on video. But ACORN has said that the videos were manipulated, that in at least one case a worker was simply playing along with what she considered a ridiculous scheme, and that the amateur journalism project was part of a relentless conservative attack on the liberal organization.

O'Keefe insists that he and Giles's work was done independently and rejects liberal suggestions that the videos were bankrolled by conservative organizations. He does, however, acknowledge receiving help and advice from a conservative columnist and Web entrepreneur.

When O'Keefe had filmed the first two videos -- in the District and Baltimore -- a friend urged him to share his project with Andrew Breitbart, a conservative Internet entrepreneur who had plans to launch an anti-liberal site called BigGovernment.com. Breitbart said he was skeptical after a June phone call with O'Keefe about what he had, but when the video was rolling in his basement office in Los Angeles in late July, Breitbart said, he gasped.

Breitbart, who also has a column that appears in the Washington Times, advised O'Keefe to roll out the videos one by one, rather than at once. He said he predicted the mainstream media would try to ignore the story, and after a day "poof, it would be over."

"When I saw these videos, I couldn't help thinking, this is the Abu Ghraib of the Great Society," said Breitbart, who put the videos on BigGovernment.com. "Everybody that is a conservative news junkie thinks that ACORN is the most important institution for us to uncover to the American public."

The strategy worked. As ACORN's fortunes have fallen, those of O'Keefe and Giles have risen. O'Keefe said he has received hundreds of requests for interviews and his inbox has thousands of e-mails. Giles and O'Keefe have become Facebook sensations, with fan clubs and testimonial walls. "Hannah Giles is HOTT!" reads the motto of one of her fan club sites. "Beware the Acorn Exterminator!"


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