By Carol D. Leonnig and Garance Franke-Ruta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; A01
The conservative young filmmaker whose undercover sting damaged a liberal activist group last year faces federal criminal charges in an alleged plot to tamper with the phones in the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
James O'Keefe was among four men who created a ruse to enter the lawmaker's downtown office, saying they needed to repair her telephones, according to court records unsealed Tuesday. O'Keefe used his cellphone to take pictures of two men, Joseph Basel and Robert Flanagan, who are accused in an FBI agent's sworn affidavit of impersonating telephone company workers. Stanley Dai is accused of aiding the Jan. 25 plot.
All four were taken to a suburban New Orleans jail and charged with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony. If convicted, each man faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
Flanagan, 24, is the son of William J. Flanagan, the acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, based in Shreveport. William Flanagan declined to comment through an office assistant.
Landrieu said Tuesday, "I am as interested as everyone else about their motives and purpose, which I hope will become clear as the investigation moves forward."
O'Keefe, 25, became a conservative hero last year after he and fellow activist Hannah Giles secretly videotaped several regional offices of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) while posting as a pimp and a prostitute. O'Keefe's videos showed ACORN staffers appearing to offer them housing help and advice on concealing their purported prostitution business.
The furor over the videos led Congress in September to recommend banning all federal funding for ACORN, and the group, facing major questions about its housing work for the federal government, was forced to launch an internal audit of its operations. The ban never took effect: In December, a federal court ruled that singling out ACORN for punishment was unconstitutional and ordered the federal government to honor its existing contracts with the group.
Given that history with O'Keefe, Democrats gleefully pored over the details of the criminal charges Tuesday, while Republicans either spoke about waiting for all the facts to come out or kept their thoughts to themselves.
Conservative activist Andrew Breitbart, who helped champion O'Keefe's undercover work on his Web site BigGovernment.com and advised him on how best to release the videos over time, said Tuesday that he didn't have enough details about the New Orleans charges to comment.
"We have no knowledge about or connection to any alleged acts and events involving James O'Keefe at Senator Mary Landrieu's office," Breitbart said. "We have no information other than what has been reported publicly by the press."
According to the FBI affidavit, Flanagan and Basel were dressed in blue denim pants, blue work shirts, light green fluorescent vests, tool belts and white construction-style hard hats when they entered the Hale Boggs Federal Building on busy Poydras Street. The pair told Landrieu's staff members that they were telephone repairmen and needed access to the office's main reception desk telephone.
O'Keefe was already inside the office, telling a Landrieu staffer that he was waiting for someone to arrive. The staffer told an FBI agent that O'Keefe had "positioned his cellular phone in his hand so as to record Flanagan and Basel," the affidavit stated.
On Thursday, O'Keefe delivered a speech to the Pelican Institute, a libertarian think tank based one block from Landrieu's office. He was hailed in promotional materials for the event as "a pioneer in the use of new media to drive these kinds of important stories. . . . He will discuss the role of new media and show examples of effective investigative reporting."
In October, 31 members of Congress signed a resolution, authored by Rep. Pete Olson (R-Tex.), to honor O'Keefe and Giles "for their diligent investigative journalism exposing the fraudulent and potentially illegal activities" of ACORN.
"Hannah and James should be applauded for their efforts to root out corruption and abuse of federal tax dollars," Olson said, adding that they were "setting an example for concerned citizens across America that we can hold those who receive taxpayer funds accountable."
Olson said Tuesday that he understandably supported exposing the misdeeds of a government contractor. "However, if recent events conclude that any laws were broken in the incident in Senator Landrieu's office -- that is not something I condone," he said in a statement.
The earlier videos put ACORN, and many of the Democratic lawmakers who supported it, in the hot seat for nearly a month. ACORN, whose subsidiaries have federal contracts primarily to offer housing counseling, is best known for its robust registration of low-income and minority voters, who typically vote Democratic. Its efforts in 2008 were credited with helping to elect Barack Obama president.
Last fall, ACORN accused O'Keefe of doctoring some of the videos, including by deleting comments by ACORN staffers that indicated they thought his pimp act was a joke.
ACORN President Bertha Lewis said Tuesday that O'Keefe's arrest is "further evidence of his disregard for the law in pursuit of his extremist agenda" and that it supports the organization's view that many videos were edited to make it look bad.
"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," she 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."
O'Keefe is well-known, but Flanagan, Basel and Dai are not. Flanagan worked last year as a paid intern for Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.); he now works at the Pelican Institute as a blogger.
Dai, who is from Alexandria, is a Chinese immigrant and was president of the Conservative Student Union at George Washington University in 2005, student records show.
Basel, a Mankato, Minn., native, and O'Keefe became friends as fellow founders of conservative newspapers at their respective colleges, O'Keefe at Rutgers and Basel at the University of Minnesota-Morris.
In a joint interview given to CampusReform.org two weeks ago, O'Keefe and Basel were quoted about their frustration with what they considered to be the liberal bent of college media. O'Keefe urged young conservatives to think and act boldly to avoid complacency.
"The more bold you are, the more opportunities will be open to you," O'Keefe said. "The less bold you are, the less opportunities in life will be open to you."
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.