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Four charged in incident at Mary Landrieu’s office. Watergate 2?

James O’Keefe and three others are accused of attempted phone tampering in an office for Sen. Mary Landrieu. Liberals are likening the incident to the Watergate break-in.

By Staff writer / January 27, 2010

A view of the Hale Boggs Federal Building in New Orleans is seen Wednesday. Four men were arrested Tuesday by the FBI and accused of trying to interfere with phones at Sen. Mary Landrieu's office in the building.

Patrick Semansky/AP

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Atlanta

A surge of conservative online journalism has scored a number of coups, perhaps none bigger than the undercover videos of ACORN organizers instructing a supposed pimp and prostitute on how to hide their earnings.

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But the arrest this week of James O’Keefe, who became a hero to the right after his infiltration of ACORN but is now accused of attempted phone tampering, has thrown fresh doubt on those videos and has put Mr. O’Keefe in the center of a brewing political storm. Liberals are likening the incident to the Watergate break-in, and conservatives are largely urging Americans to hold off judgment.

Leaving the courthouse Tuesday after posting a $10,000 bond, O’Keefe said: “The truth shall set me free.”

O’Keefe and three others – Joseph Basel, Stan Dai, and Robert Flanagan – are accused of breaking federal law by entering federal property under false pretenses. The alleged goal: tampering with the phone lines in an office for Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) of Louisiana. The office is located in the Hale Boggs Federal Building in New Orleans.

According to an FBI affidavit unsealed Tuesday, Messrs. Basel and Flanagan finagled their way into Senator Landrieu’s office by posing as phone repairmen, wearing denim pants, tool belts, and hard hats. O’Keefe was already inside the office, allegedly to take video of the pair with his cellphone.

Basel and Flanagan, according to the affidavit, manipulated the phone system in the senator’s office and then went to a General Services Administration building to access the main communications system for the building. They were arrested there after saying they left their credentials in their cars.

Mr. Dai, meanwhile, was arrested outside.

Critics say that the alleged attempt at subterfuge, whatever the group’s motives, calls into question the undercover videos of ACORN offices. While the people in the videos seem to indict themselves in a supposed tax-evasion scheme, the organization has said the videos were unfairly edited.

“Finally, people will see Mr. O’Keefe for what we knew him to be,” Bertha Lewis, CEO of ACORN, said Tuesday on MSNBC’s “The Ed Show.” “Whatever his views are, he will break the law in order to further his agenda.”

But Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., argues that O'Keefe's ACORN work had merit. It uncovered, Professor Schier says, important and otherwise unknown information about an entity that has taken taxpayer money. But O’Keefe’s success – and his cause – may have gone to his head.

“These people are on a mission. They have a strong sense of cause, and I think that the ACORN revelations they produced heightened their motivation to try to get embarrassing information in a variety of innovative ways,” Schier says. “They were close to the line with ACORN, and with this they’re over the line.”

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