NEW ORLEANS — A conservative activist who posed as a pimp to target the community-organizing group ACORN and the son of a federal prosecutor were among four people arrested and accused of trying to interfere with phones at Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office.
Activist James O’Keefe, 25, was already in Landrieu’s New Orleans office Monday when Robert Flanagan and Joseph Basel, both 24, showed up claiming to be telephone repairmen, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office said Tuesday. Letten says O’Keefe recorded the two with his cell phone.
Flanagan, the son of acting U.S. Attorney Bill Flanagan in Shreveport, and Basel asked for access to a phone at the reception desk. Then they asked for access to a phone closet so they could work on the phone system. The men were directed to another office in the building, where they again said they were telephone repairmen.
They were arrested later by U.S. marshals. Details of the arrest were not available. A fourth man, Stan Dai, 24, was also arrested, but Letten’s office said only that he assisted the others in planning, coordinating and preparing.
It sounded a bit 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.
Landrieu, a moderate Democrat, declined comment Tuesday through spokesman Aaron Saunders. Saunders did say Landrieu was in Washington, not in her office, when the men showed up Monday. 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.
Bill Flanagan’s office confirmed his son was among those arrested, but declined further comment.
An FBI criminal complaint charging the men was unsealed Tuesday, and a magistrate set bond at $10,000 each after they made their initial court appearances wearing red prison jumpsuits.
None of the defendants commented on the allegations in court.
“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.”
Eddie Castaing, who represented O’Keefe, Dai and Basel, said he had no details on the allegations.
“We are just grateful that they were not detained … and they can go home to their families,” he said.
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. Reached by phone Tuesday about the Landrieu allegations, Breitbart said, “I know nothing of it other than people are asking me questions.”
In the past, Breitbart has said O’Keefe — now a paid contributor to biggovernment.com — is an independent filmmaker, not an employee.
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 and attempts Tuesday to locate a lawyer who might represent him were not successful.
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.
Statement from Andrew Breitbart:
“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.”
FBI’s Press Release:
For Immediate Release
January 26, 2010 United States Attorney’s Office
Eastern District of Louisiana
Contact: (504) 680-3000
Four Men Arrested for Entering Government Property Under False Pretenses for the Purpose of Committing a Felony
NEW ORLEANS–JOSEPH BASEL, age 24; ROBERT FLANAGAN, age 24; JAMES O’KEEFE, age 25; and STAN DAI, age 24, were charged in a criminal complaint with entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, announced the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Louisiana.
According to the complaint, which was unsealed earlier today, the arrest of FLANAGAN, BASEL, O’KEEFE, and DAI took place after BASEL and O’KEEFE attempted to gain access to the New Orleans office of United States Senator Mary Landrieu on January 25, 2010, while posing as telephone repairmen. According to the complaint, FLANAGAN and BASEL were each dressed in blue denim pants, blue work shirts, light green fluorescent vests, tool belts, and construction-style hard hats when they entered the Hale Boggs Federal Building, located at 500 Poydras Street, New Orleans, Louisiana 70130. Once in the building, FLANAGAN and BASEL sought access to the offices of Senator Landrieu. O’KEEFE was already present in the office, holding a cellular phone so as to record FLANAGAN and BASEL. Once inside Senator Landrieu’s reception area, FLANAGAN and BASEL told a member of Senator Landrieu’s staff that they were telephone repairmen, and they requested access to the main telephone at the reception desk. FLANAGAN and BASEL then manipulated the telephone system. FLANAGAN and BASEL next requested access to the telephone closet because they needed to perform work on the main telephone system. They were directed to the main office of the United States General Services Administration, also inside the Hale Boggs Federal Building, where they again represented themselves to be employees of the telephone company and stated that they needed to perform repair work in the telephone closet. Both FLANAGAN and BASEL stated that they had left their credentials in their vehicle. In addition, the complaint alleges that O’KEEFE and DAI assisted FLANAGAN and BASEL in the planning, coordination, and preparation of the operation. The men were apprehended by the United States Marshal’s Service soon thereafter.
If convicted, FLANAGAN, BASEL, O’KEEFE, and DAI each face a maximum term of 10 years in prison, a fine of $250,000, and three (3) years of supervised release following any term of imprisonment.
The United States Attorney’s Office reiterated that the complaint is merely a charge and that the guilt of the defendant must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
The investigation is being conducted by Special Agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Deputy Marshals with the United States Marshal’s Service. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Jordan Ginsberg.