NEW ORLEANS — A conservative filmmaker who posed as a pimp to target the liberal activist group ACORN was arrested with the son of a federal prosecutor and two other men and accused of plotting to tamper with the New Orleans offices of Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.
Activist James O'Keefe, 25, recorded two of the other suspects with his cell phone as they walked into the office dressed like telephone repairmen and said they needed to fix problems with the phone system, according to an FBI affidavit.
In the affidavit, Special Agent Steven Rayes said O’Keefe was helping Joseph Basel and Robert Flanagan, who were attempting to interfere with the office’s telephone system.
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 an FBI affidavit that described the circumstances of the case.
O'Keefe said, "The truth shall set me free," as he left a suburban jail Tuesday with Basel and suspect Stan Dai, both 24. All declined to comment. "There will be a time for that," Dai said.
The fourth suspect, Robert Flanagan, the son of Shreveport-based acting U.S. Attorney Bill Flanagan, was not with them. It was not immediately known if he had already been released on the $10,000 bail set for each suspect.
Bill Flanagan's office confirmed his son was among those arrested, but declined further comment.
All four men were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony.
It sounded like a Watergate-style operation, but federal officials have not yet said why the men wanted to interfere with Landrieu's phones, whether they were successful, or even if the goal was political espionage.
According to the FBI affidavit, Flanagan and Basel showed up at Landrieu's office Monday morning carrying white hard hats and dressed in jeans, blue work shirts, fluorescent green vests and toolbelts. They told an employee they were there to fix problems with the phone system. O'Keefe told an employee he was there waiting for someone.
The affidavit says Basel asked for access to a phone at the reception desk, then manipulated the handset and tried to call the phone with his cell phone, but said he could not get through. Flanagan tried to call as well, according to the affidavit.
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They said they needed to work on the main system and asked where the telephone closet was. They were directed to another office in the building, where they again said they were telephone repairmen and an employee asked for their credentials. They said they had left them in their vehicle.
They were arrested later by U.S. marshals. Details of the arrest were not available. Dai was also arrested, but Letten's office said only that he assisted the others in planning, coordinating and preparing.
Landrieu, a moderate Democrat, said in a statement Tuesday, "I am as interested as everyone else about their motives and purpose, which I hope will become clear as the investigation moves forward."
Spokesman Aaron Saunders said Landrieu was in Washington when the men showed up Monday in New Orleans. Landrieu has been in the news recently because she negotiated an increase in Medicaid funds for her state before announcing her support for Senate health care legislation.
An FBI criminal complaint charging the men was unsealed Tuesday. None of the defendants, each wearing red prison jumpsuits, commented at a court hearing held in the afternoon. All four were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, which could bring up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
"It was poor judgment," Robert Flanagan's lawyer, Garrison Jordan, said in a brief interview outside the courthouse. "I don't think there was any intent or motive to commit a crime."
Michael McHale, chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, referred to the episode as "Louisiana Watergate" in a statement Tuesday and urged authorities to prosecute "any wrongdoers to the fullest extent of the law."
O'Keefe was the brains behind a series of undercover videos that have caused major problems for ACORN — the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now.
He managed to do what Republicans have been trying to for years — hurt the political affiliates of ACORN, which have registered hundreds of thousands of voters in urban and other poor areas of the country.
By producing undercover videos shot in ACORN offices, O'Keefe brought a firestorm of criticism that the group was helping its low-income clients break the law.
Using a hidden camera, O'Keefe, posing as a pimp and accompanied by a young woman posing as a prostitute, shot videos in ACORN offices where staffers appeared to offer illegal tax advice and to support the misuse of public funds and illegal trafficking in children.
Edited videos of those visits to ACORN offices 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 a statement e-mailed 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. We only just learned about the alleged incident this afternoon. We have no information other than what has been reported publicly by the press. Accordingly, we simply are not in a position to make any further comment."
O'Keefe's biography on a Web site where he blogs says he works at VeritasVisuals.com, though that Web site does not currently work. O’Keefe was in New Orleans last week to give a speech at the Libertarian Pelican Institute.
O'Keefe has been sued in Pennsylvania and Maryland based on the ACORN videos; he does not have an attorney of record in either case.
ACORN calls itself the largest grass roots community organization of low- and moderate-income people in the country, claiming over 400,000 families, more than 1,200 neighborhood chapters in about 75 cities.
Until the controversy last year over the videos at ACORN offices, 10 percent of ACORN's funds came from federal government grants. In September, Congress blocked previously approved funds from going to the group.
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."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.