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.
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.”
Even websites like the Thomas Jefferson Street blog, which had applauded O’Keefe’s work, said the charges will color the ACORN investigation. “It sounds like something out of the tritest kind of television script,” writes Robert Schlesinger on the site. “Judging by the ACORN caper, O’Keefe’s style isn’t simply to prove corruption but stupidity. It’s ironic, then, that the rank lack of sense in his latest alleged stunt calls into question his ACORN charges.”
Below the surface of this alleged stunt, the story has a darker edge. One of the men, Flanagan, is the son of Acting US Attorney Bill Flanagan, who heads Louisiana’s Western District. Landrieu opposed him in a recent nomination.
Robert Flanagan recently criticized Landrieu for her role in what conservatives call the “Louisiana Purchase”: She provided a key vote for the Senate healthcare bill after securing a Medicaid provision for Louisiana estimated to be worth as much as $365 million. “Do not be fooled into believing Landrieu is helping the state of Louisiana,” Flanagan wrote in a post last November on the Pelican Institute’s website site, according to The Associated Press.
One of the other alleged perpetrators, Dai, has been a “freelance consultant” for the Junior Statesmen program of the Central Intelligence Agency, according to AP.
Those shades of the Watergate break-in – whether justified or not – have captivated especially liberal media outlets and conspiracy theorists.
MSNBC host Chris Matthews also drew comparisons to Watergate. “The attempted bugging,” he said, “is a throwback to the 1972 break-in and similar attempted bugging at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington.” That incident and attempt to cover it up led to the resignation of Republican president Richard Nixon, Mr. Matthews noted.
On the other hand, conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart, owner of the Biggovernment.com blog where footage of ACORN was released, criticized media reports about the arrest. He also said he had no knowledge of O’Keefe’s latest incident.
"Mainstream Media, ACORN, Media Matters (all the supposed defenders of due process and journalistic ethics) are jumping to conclusions over the arrest .... MSNBC and other 'news organizations' are even billing this developing story as 'Watergate,' " he wrote on his blog. "What do Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow know? And when did they know it?"
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