Phone tampering may be a prankWas it an attempt at political espionage? Or just a third-rate prank? How high did it go? And what did the right wing know and when did they know it? In what some Democrats are calling the “Louisiana Watergate,” four young conservative activists — one of them a known political prankster — were arrested this week and accused of trying to tamper with the telephones in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office.
By: By Michael Kunzelman and Brett J. Blackledge, The Associated Press , The Jamestown Sun
NEW ORLEANS — Was it an attempt at political espionage? Or just a third-rate prank? How high did it go? And what did the right wing know and when did they know it?
In what some Democrats are calling the “Louisiana Watergate,” four young conservative activists — one of them a known political prankster — were arrested this week and accused of trying to tamper with the telephones in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office.
But two days after their arrest, neither the FBI nor federal prosecutors would say what the defendants were up to or whether they were part of some larger conspiracy.
Authorities said two of the defendants posed as telephone repairmen in hard hats, fluorescent vests and tool belts and asked to see the phones at Landrieu’s office; one of them had a tiny camera in his helmet. A third man is alleged to have waited outside in a car with a listening device to pick up transmissions. The fourth, James O’Keefe, used his cell phone to try to capture video of the scene inside, authorities said.
Last year, O’Keefe, a 25-year-old self-described investigative journalist, posed as a pimp in the hidden-camera videos that embarrassed the community organizing group ACORN.
Michael Madigan, O’Keefe’s lawyer, said Wednesday that his client was not trying to wiretap or interfere with Landrieu’s phones, but he would not explain why O’Keefe was there. He also would not say whether O’Keefe was working for someone or was on his own.
“The truth will come out,” said Madigan, a Washington lawyer who represented Sen. Howard Baker, the Republican who famously asked during the Watergate investigation, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”
The incident occurred a month after Landrieu announced her support for the Senate health care bill. As the vote neared, conservatives complained they were unable to register protests at her offices because their calls were referred to voice mail boxes that often were full.
“We did hear that complaint, but absolutely at no time did Sen. Landrieu or her staff intentionally avoid phone calls related to health care or any other topic,” Landrieu spokesman Aaron Saunders said Wednesday.
All four men were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, which carries up to 10 years in prison. They were not charged with wiretapping.
Meanwhile, the conservatives who once made O’Keefe their hero for his hidden-camera expose of ACORN distanced themselves from his latest project.
Hannah Giles — who posed as a prostitute for the sting videos, in which ACORN staffers appeared to offer illegal tax advice and support the misuse of public funds — said she was shocked when she heard about O’Keefe’s arrest.
“I am well aware that following the law is an integral part of being a good investigative journalist,” Giles said in a statement. “I take that responsibility and accountability very seriously. I certainly hope these reports are untrue.”
Fox News’ Glenn Beck, who made O’Keefe’s ACORN expose a national phenomenon by championing the videos, said on his radio show that if the allegations against O’Keefe are true, the young man crossed the line.
“You don’t do anything illegal. That’s Watergate territory. You just don’t do that,” Beck said. “But besides that, I don’t even think you go dressed up. I mean, it’s a senator. For the love of Pete, it’s a senator.”
All four defendants shared an interest in conservative politics and commentary.
O’Keefe and Joseph Basel, 24, formed their own conservative publications on their college campuses — O’Keefe at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Basel at the University of Minnesota-Morris.
“Joe had a lot of ideas,” said Kim Ukura, who founded The Counterweight with Basel and another student in 2005. “He was really excited about the things he wanted to do. He was really passionate about his beliefs, I guess.”