By Darryl Fears and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 18, 2009; A01
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.
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!"
O'Keefe dismissed Lewis's assertion that the videos were doctored. "They've lied every step of the way," he said. "They said nothing happened in D.C. and we disproved that. They said nothing happened in Baltimore and we disproved that. I don't know why anyone believes them."
Giles and O'Keefe have been criticized for accuracy problems. Their videos include the oft-repeated conservative claim that ACORN is expected to get up to $8.5 billion in government funds. But that's a bold exaggeration, as it includes $3 billion in stimulus funds set aside for revitalization efforts nationwide, and $5.5 billion in federal community development grants. The number assumes ACORN would apply for and win every project and grant in the country, while ACORN says it is not applying for any of the stimulus funds.
"I've not owned that $8.5 billion number and tied it to ACORN, because I'm the publisher of this story," Breitbart said. "I ask the journalists to check their facts."
According to O'Keefe's account, ACORN was laid low by a stunt with a $1,300 budget, O'Keefe said. He and Giles rolled up and down Interstate 95 munching on Subway and Quiznos sandwiches between visits to the organization's branch offices.
O'Keefe, who described himself as an investigative journalist with no formal training, said he bought his own $300 plane ticket to California to visit ACORN sites in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego.
"We'll be providing receipts, documented proof that this was an independent piece of journalism done by myself and Hannah Giles," he said.
Giles did not respond to phone calls and requests through Townhall.com editor Jonathan Garthwaite for an interview. Her father, Doug Giles of the radical Clash Church in Miami, had complained of what he called the evils of the Obama administration and its alliance with ACORN.
In an online opinion piece last month, titled "What Obama's Town Hall Charade and Pam Anderson's Breasts Have in Common," Doug Giles complained of Obama's "rent-a-mobs" at a health care town hall in New Hampshire. He claimed Obama could "summon a cabal at the drop of a red fez," including "ACORN lug nuts ready to register Mickey Mouse" to vote.
Ron Robinson, director of Young America's Foundation, where Hannah Giles spent the summer learning about how to be a journalist from conservative media experts, said Doug Giles has reason to be proud of how he has raised his daughter.
"She deserves all the credit here," Robinson said. "Certainly, she may have been inspired to some extent by her father, but this was her doing."
Giles had not personally met O'Keefe when she called him in May, O'Keefe said. She had written about a video O'Keefe had produced that was aimed at Planned Parenthood, he said. They traded e-mails and messages on Facebook before O'Keefe finally drove south to meet her.
Though O'Keefe described himself as a progressive radical, not a conservative, he said he targeted ACORN for the same reasons that the political right does: its massive voter registration drives that turn out poor African Americans and Latinos against Republicans.
"Politicians are getting elected single-handedly due to this organization," he said. "No one was holding this organization accountable. No one in the media is putting pressure on them. We wanted to do a stunt and see what we could find."
In his role as a pimp, O'Keefe said, he employed the skill of a method actor. "When you're in the moment, you can't afford to get out of character." In ACORN's District office, when two workers identified as Sherona Boone and Lavernia Boone coached the couple on how to cloak their business enterprise, O'Keefe remained calm.
"But when you walk out of the place and get into the car, it dawns on you, you're like, whoa," he said. In the Baltimore office, O'Keefe said he would employ 13-year-old girls as sex workers "and they didn't care at all. We knew then that this would be historic. We were sitting in a traffic jam for two hours trying to get out of Baltimore, listening to audio. We were shocked and amazed."
In Philadelphia, Neil Herrmann, ACORN's lead organizer there, said the couple was kicked out after talking to a counselor "for a few minutes." They called to set up an appointment the day before the visit.
"At first when the counselor came," she wasn't going to take them back," Herrmann said. "But they had made an appointment. When he mentioned the 13-year-old girls, they were asked to leave."
O'Keefe disputed Herrmann's account, saying "we talked to them for more than a few minutes."
ACORN emailed a copy of a Philadelphia police report dated July 24 to The Post to verify its account that police were called and the couple was shown the door. O'Keefe is named on the report.