Debate Over Activists' Actions In Senator's Office

Four young conservative activists, who face felony charges for allegedly posing as telephone repairmen in a Democratic senator's office, head to court next week. The episode has drawn fire from political opponents and journalists, but some citizen advocates say there's a need for such undercover operations.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The latest now in what some have dubbed the Louisiana Watergate. Four young conservative activists head to court next week. They face felony charges for posing as telephone repairmen in a Democratic senator's office.

As NPR's Debbie Elliott reports, the incident has raised debate about the value and boundaries of advocacy journalism.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: The group of men includes 25-year-old James O'Keefe, who gained notoriety last year when he posed as a pimp in a hidden video targeting the community organizing group ACORN.

Last fall after the ACORN expose, in an appearance at the National Press Club, O'Keefe promised more.

Mr. JAMES O'KEEFE (Journalist): This has only just begun. Hundreds of people around the country contact me and with tips, with ideas, and we're going to follow through on those.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

ELLIOTT: One of those investigations led him here, downtown New Orleans in the Federal Building, where Senator Mary Landrieu has district offices. Those offices were apparently the target of his next sting.

Unidentified Man #2: (Unintelligible).

ELLIOTT: Security guards stopped NPR from entering the building with a tape recorder. Federal officials won't talk about the pending case, but an FBI affidavit says Joseph Basil and Robert Flanagan fraudulently represented themselves as telephone repairmen and sought access to the main telephone system in Landrieu's office.

The affidavit says James O'Keefe was already in the office, recording the events on a cell phone. A fourth man, Stan Dai, is also charged.

O'Keefe has said they were not trying to wiretap or disable the phones but were investigating allegations the senator was trying to avoid calls critical of her deal to get Louisiana funding in the health care bill. O'Keefe defended the scheme in an interview this week with Sean Hannity on Fox News.

Mr.�O'KEEFE: Investigative journalists have been using a lot of these tactics for years. I mean, NBC, Dateline...

Mr.�SEAN HANNITY (Host, "The Sean Hannity Show"): Yeah, but all right, but did you dress up as a repair guy?

Mr.�O'KEEFE: Yeah. We did. We did, yeah.

ELLIOTT: Today, Senator Landrieu took to the Senate floor to defend her deal and to address her conservative critics.

Senator MARY LANDRIEU (Democrat, Louisiana): Sometimes those fringes can be quite loud, and I'd like to try my best to silence them a little bit at this point.

ELLIOTT: But self-described advocacy journalists like Kyle Olson of the Education Action Group Foundation, says O'Keefe and others have a role to play as long as they stay within the law.

Mr.�KYLE OLSON (Advocacy Journalist, Education Action Group Foundation): Look at, you know, his previous work with regarding regarding the ACORN videos. You know, he went in and kind of had this outlandish, you know, scenario of the pimp and the prostitute, and there definitely was a story there.

ELLIOTT: Kevin Frank with the Louisiana Democratic Party disagrees. He says it's a case of political operatives pursuing an agenda at all costs.

Mr.�KEVIN FRANK (Spokesman, Louisiana Democratic Party): Every candidate lives under the pressure of having a tracker with a videotape following them around. That's hardball politics, but that's perfectly legal. The difference is catching someone on camera making a mistake on their own accord or fraudulently presenting yourself as someone you're not to create a situation that appears embarrassing.

ELLIOTT: O'Keefe has said on reflection he could have used a different approach in the Louisiana case but has promised to continue his undercover stings. As long as they're legal, O'Keefe has the support of his former employer, Morton Blackwell, president of the Leadership Institute, which recruits and trains conservatives to work in politics and media.

Mr.�MORTON BLACKWELL (President, Leadership Institute): I don't doubt that there are conservatives out there who would be perfectly prepared to fund a legal defense for James because his - among many conservatives, he's a real hero.

ELLIOTT: O'Keefe and the other three suspects will answer to the felony charges next week at a pretrial hearing. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, New Orleans.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.