January 27, 2010 in Nation/World

Phone scheme nets arrests

Conservative filmmaker, three others apparently targeting Democratic senator
Richard A. Serrano And Kate Linthicum Tribune Washington bureau
 
Associated Press photo

James O’Keefe speaks with the media after his release from jail in Chalmette, La., on Tuesday.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Four young men posing as telephone repairmen have been arrested for allegedly interfering with the telephones in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in downtown New Orleans, including James O’Keefe III, a conservative filmmaker whose undercover videos have scandalized the ACORN voter registration operation.

According to a federal affidavit unsealed Tuesday in New Orleans, O’Keefe and three others were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses to commit a felony on Monday when they told the senator’s aide they were repairmen and needed access to the main phone line at the reception desk.

O’Keefe has appeared on numerous conservative stations with his videos of ACORN operations. He is most widely known for pretending to be a pimp and secretly taping ACORN officials in several cities, where he obtained advice on tax evasion, human smuggling and child prostitution. To many he has become a conservative folk hero and has promised similar techniques to ambush other liberal organizations.

New Orleans is one of ACORN’s three headquarters, but it was unclear why the 25-year-old O’Keefe might have been targeting Landrieu’s office. However, Landrieu was one of the last Democrats to pledge support for the health care overhaul bill. She only signed on after Majority Leader Harry Reid pledged additional aid for Louisiana’s Medicaid program.

Another of the defendants, 24-year-old Robert Flanagan, was identified as the son of William Flanagan, the top federal prosecutor and acting head of the United States attorney’s office in Shreveport, La.

According to FBI Special Agent Stephen Rayes, O’Keefe was the first to appear in Landrieu’s reception area in the late morning Monday on the 10th floor of the Hale Boggs Federal Building. He told a member of the senator’s staff that he was “waiting for someone to arrive.”

The agent said that Flanagan and Joseph Basel, 24, then appeared in the reception area, “each dressed in blue denim pants, a blue work shirt, a light fluorescent vest, a tool belt and carrying white, construction-style hard hats.” They said they were there “to fix problems with the telephone system.”

As O’Keefe appeared to be filming them from his cell phone, Basel “manipulated” the handset of the receptionist’s phone and Basel tried to call that number from another phone. But “he stated that he could not get through.”

Flanagan and Basel next asked for access to the telephone closet and told a General Services Administration employee on the 10th floor that they were there to repair the phone lines, Agent Rayes said. When asked for their credentials, Flanagan and Basel said they had left their identification in their vehicle.

All four men were arrested, and Agent Rayes said Flanagan and Basel admitted they were not phone repairmen and had entered Landrieu’s office under false pretenses.

Agent Rayes said that O’Keefe and a fourth man, 24-year-old Stan Dai, admitted they had helped in the “planning, coordination and preparation of the operation,” and that O’Keefe “further admitted to recording Flanagan and Basel inside Landrieu’s office.”

The men were released Tuesday on unsecured bonds of $10,000 each. If convicted, O’Keefe, Flanagan and the other two men each face a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

O’Keefe shot to celebrity last summer when he and another conservative activist, Hannah Giles, released a series of damaging videotapes that they had secretly recorded at ACORN offices across the country.

In the videos, O’Keefe and Giles, disguised as a pimp and prostitute, appear to receive advice on tax evasion and underage prostitution from ACORN employees.

Outrage over the tapes led Congress last fall to cut federal funding for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now and prompted more than a dozen state and local authorities to investigate the advocacy group.

O’Keefe and Giles were heralded as heroes on conservative Web sites and talk shows, but they have been mired in lawsuits since the videos aired.


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