Lawyer: Conservative Activists’ Phone Scheme Meant to Embarrass Senator

January 29, 2010 - 6:41 AM
Sen. Mary Landrieu rejected the lawyer's explanation that the men posing as telephone workers hoped to document claims that callers couldn't get through with complaints about her support for health care reform.
New Orleans (AP) - Investigators pressed ahead with their probe of four men accused of trying to tamper with a senator's phones after a lawyer said the conservative activists were just trying to capture embarrassing video of her staff ignoring constituent calls.
 
For her part, Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu wasn't impressed with the lawyer's explanation Thursday that the men hoped to document claims that callers couldn't get through with complaints about her support for health care reform.
 
"Attorneys are hired to spin for their clients," she said Thursday in an interview in Washington. "Good luck."
 
J. Garrison Jordan, an attorney for one of the men, denied they were trying to disable or wiretap the phones in Landrieu's office. The four, including activist James O'Keefe, known for posing as a pimp and using a hidden camera to target the community-organizing group ACORN, were arrested Monday.
 
"You're dealing with kids," Jordan said. "I don't think they thought it through that far."
 
Monday's incident came weeks after callers began claiming that Landrieu's office was ignoring them. Protesters marched in front of Landrieu's office in Baton Rouge in December to criticize her support for Senate health care legislation and complain that they couldn't get through on her office phones. Landrieu said at the time that her office was flooded with a high volume of calls.
 
Jordan said his client, Robert Flanagan, the 24-year-old son of a federal prosecutor in Louisiana, did not intend to break the law when he went into the office posing as a telephone worker.
 
No matter their intentions, the four face the serious charge of entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, which carries up to 10 years in prison. They are free on $10,000 bail.
 
Investigators are aware of Jordan's explanation, but are pressing ahead to see if that was indeed the men's motive, a senior federal law enforcement official said Thursday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
 
Charged along with O'Keefe and Flanagan were Joseph Basel, 24, of Minnesota and Stan Dai, 24, of the Washington, D.C., area. The four are due back in court Feb. 12.
 
O'Keefe, Basel and Dai stayed with Benjamin Wetmore, a friend of O'Keefe's, while they were in New Orleans. Wetmore, a 28-year-old law school student, was O'Keefe's boss when he worked at the Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based program that trains conservative activists.
 
Wetmore declined to discuss their stay at his house and what they did while there. But he praised O'Keefe's work targeting ACORN on his Web site and said he hired O'Keefe in 2006, helping him hone his undercover camera craft.
 
In an Oct. 16 blog post, Wetmore criticized the Leadership Institute, where he no longer works, for not supporting O'Keefe's budding activism. Wetmore said he was "nearly fired for buying the initial video equipment that James used."
 
O'Keefe last year became famous for his videos about ACORN, the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, which has affiliates that register voters in urban and other poor areas of the country. He used a hidden camera to record as he brought a young woman posing as a prostitute to the group's offices.
 
In Monday's incident, authorities said O'Keefe used his cell phone to try to capture video of two of his fellow defendants in Landrieu's office before their arrest. The two posed as telephone repairmen -- wearing fluorescent vests, tool belts and hard hats, one equipped with a hidden camera -- and asked to see the phones at Landrieu's office. The fourth is alleged to have waited outside in a car with a listening device that could pick up transmissions.
 
Andrew Breitbart, whose biggovernment.com site launched O'Keefe's ACORN videos and who has since hired O'Keefe as a contributor, also downplayed the federal case.
 
"Their uniforms were outlandish," Breitbart said in an interview. "This was like 'Hee Haw,' a blatant clown-nose-on spectacle to make a salient political yet mildly humorous point."
 
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Associated Press Writers Justin Pritchard in New Orleans and Ben Evans and Pete Yost in Washington contributed to this report.