The James O'Keefe factor

Last modified: 1/29/2012 12:00:00 AM
The footage is grainy, the audio is fuzzy, but the stories always seem clear. At first.

A pimp in a chinchilla coat and his scantily clad girlfriend walk into an ACORN community organizing office and walk out with tax advice for their prostitution ring.

Fundraisers for National Public Radio take a limousine to a pricey Washington, D.C., restaurant and say just about anything to land $5 million from donors with ties to an Islamist group.

And on Jan. 10, the day of the New Hampshire primary, 10 New Hampshire poll workers hand ballots to men who had no right to them.

The events were caught on camera, but the subjects did not know they were being recorded and did not know that James E. O'Keefe III would post videos of them on the internet for millions to see.

"My goal is to change hearts and minds and make society more ethical. It's as simple as that," O'Keefe said. "I want to make the world a more virtuous place. I want to make people do the right thing without being compelled to do the right thing. That's my goal, to open people's eyes about what's going on in society."

O'Keefe heads Project Veritas, a 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofit whose aim, he said, is to uncover "waste, fraud and abuse, corruption, dishonesty and self-dealing in society." His long-term goal, he said, is to produce "quality journalism that exposes these things in a visual way."

Almost three weeks ago, three of his colleagues entered polling stations in Nashua and Manchester, approached the check-in desks and said the names of men whom they knew were dead but were likely still on the rolls. In 10 of the 11 interactions shown in the 10-minute video posted the day

after the primary, the men, identified as "citizen journalists," were handed ballots. The videos do not show them voting.

Critics on both the left and right of the political spectrum have said O'Keefe's methods, which include deception and "heavy" post-production editing, undermine his credibility. O'Keefe bristles at the claim.

"It is inherently true what we're showing you," he said.

Since "Primary of the Living Dead" was released, state Republicans have renewed calls for legislation that would require voters to show a photo ID at the polls. Others have said O'Keefe and his partners should be prosecuted.

The New Hampshire attorney general's office said it became aware of the incidents on primary day and is still investigating. O'Keefe said Thursday he has not been contacted by any law enforcement officials.

He also said he is not responsible for the jobs lost, the humiliation felt, the funding cut or the reputations sullied because of his work.

"My job is not to create solutions and consequences," he said. "That's for the democratic process. Not me. I'm not an expert on voter fraud. What I'm an expert at is exposing fraud and cheating."

And exposing fraud and cheating isn't just a job for O'Keefe, who is 27 and lives with his parents in the northeast corner of New Jersey.

"It's sort of my calling," he said.

 'Alinsky' tactics

He dressed up like a pimp on Fox News, but according to his father, O'Keefe is actually a quiet person and always has been.

"He's a deep thinker, an introvert," James E. O'Keefe II said.

Those traits seem to carry over into newspaper interviews, where he tries to avoid answering personal questions but is willing to explain what motivates and influences him.

O'Keefe said he was a good student with an aptitude for math. He participated in activities that kept him outside: track and field, baseball and football. "I was, like, really a thin kid," he said. "But I was fast, so I compensated for my lack of size."

Scouting probably had the greatest influence on him, he said. He swam, canoed, went to high adventure camps. He recalls earning about 40 merit badges. He became an Eagle Scout. He loves to sail.

Though he's praised by a variety of conservative pundits and politicians, O'Keefe said he grew up in a household without a uniform set of political beliefs.

"My mother's pretty liberal. My father is sort of moderate," he said. His 25-year-old sister is "less conservative" than O'Keefe, their father said.

When he was still in high school, O'Keefe said he started reading philosophy. To this day, he gravitates toward Christian apologists such as Peter Kreeft, C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. He identifies as a Christian and leans toward Catholicism.

O'Keefe said didn't become "socially aware" until he got to Rutgers University, where he majored in philosophy. He grew frustrated with what he saw as hypocrisy and political correctness.

"I felt like a besieged minority," he said. "A besieged minority in a sort of totalitarian campus ethos, and I had to resort to using sort of (Saul) Alinsky tactics to expose the administration," he said, referring to the Chicago community organizer who wrote a primer for "realistic radicals."

"Saul Alinsky was fond of bringing power to various causes," O'Keefe said. "The mission of our organization is to bring power to the citizen journalism movement."

The first symbol of that mission: a box of Lucky Charms.

 Lampooning correctness

The woman, who to this point had been taking notes on a yellow legal pad, puts her pen down.

"Can you tell me that again?" she says.

Apparently unaware that she is being filmed, the Rutgers official is sitting at the far end of a table opposite O'Keefe, who is wearing a flat cap. Three others, also claiming to be part of the school's unofficial "Irish Heritage Foundation," sit between them.

They say they are offended that the dining halls are serving Lucky Charms. "We think that this promotes negative stereotypes of Irish-Americans, and we don't think it's acceptable in an academic setting, especially one of higher learning," O'Keefe tells the woman.

"There's what appears to be an Irish-American on the cover, and he's portrayed as a little green-cladded gnome," O'Keefe says as he holds up a box of the breakfast cereal.

The woman, who is not clearly identified in the video, was just one of many at the school to be "punked" by O'Keefe.

He and other members of The Centurion, a conservative student publication he founded, often confronted faculty members. The archives for the paper were not available, but secretly recorded videos of some of the interactions are still online.

O'Keefe described the time when he and his collaborators presented a certificate to a professor whose door was covered with political stickers. O'Keefe said it wasn't that he disapproved of the professor exercising his right to free speech.

Rather, "it might make a student feel uncomfortable if they're trying to talk to their political science professor about an issue and they knock on his door which is just covered in political endorsements," he said.

After he graduated from Rutgers, O'Keefe said he attended a California law school (he didn't identify which one) for a year.

"There were fascinating questions about consent and the Fourth Amendment and all these different interesting little things," he said.

By then, some of the videos he was still producing were getting more attention.

He dropped out of law school.

"God had other plans I guess," O'Keefe said.

 ACORN undone

Project Veritas, named for the Latin word for "truth," received tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service in April 2011. O'Keefe says he earns his income through donations to that organization.

The group said it aimed to raise $1.6 million by the end of 2012, but by the end of 2010 had raised only $2,367, according to documents obtained by the Chronicle of Philanthropy through the Freedom of Information Act.

In the same documents, O'Keefe projected an annual salary of $120,000, but he told the Monitor that he earned significantly less.

The tax filings describe a three-pronged mission.

• Conduct training sessions for other citizen journalists.

• Do investigative reporting.

• Publicize the results in the media.

In his first few years out of school, O'Keefe found a patron in conservative commentator Andrew Breitbart, who posted O'Keefe's videos on his websites, including BigGovernment.com.

Breitbart's site was among the first to promote what is one of O'Keefe's most famous projects to date, a sting operation of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN.

In the summer of 2009, O'Keefe and his partner, Hannah Giles, went into ACORN offices throughout the country, including those in Baltimore, New York and California, and secretly taped conversations with employees.

Footage later released seemed to show staffers willing to help the pair in a plot to engage in human trafficking.

In one video, an ACORN staffer in Baltimore is seen instructing Giles to list prostitution as performance art on her tax forms.

The footage prompted the California attorney general to investigate ACORN; the office found "highly inappropriate" behavior but no violation of state laws. O'Keefe gave California authorities his unedited footage in exchange for immunity for himself and Giles for prosecution, apparently from the state's "Invasion of Privacy Act."

By the end of the year, Congress had voted to defund ACORN, which eventually shut down.

Some footage showed O'Keefe swinging a cane and wearing oversized sunglasses and a fur coat, often with his arm around Giles. But when interacting with staffers, he usually wore khakis and a button-down shirt.

Critics argue that such editing could have left viewers with the impression that O'Keefe wore the outfit into the ACORN offices, making the actions of the ACORN employees appear all the more outrageous.

O'Keefe said those who criticize his methods are "misguided opponents" trying to undermine what he's uncovered.

"It is a fact that the ACORN workers told us in every location we visited, except for one, advice on how to, immorally and unethically, assist in the running of a child prostitution brothel and avoiding taxes," O'Keefe said. "That is a fact. That is a fact. A lot of journalism today doesn't expose facts."

 Backlash from Beck

O'Keefe won the praise of many for his ACORN videos, but when he later targeted National Public Radio, he came under fire from an unlikely critic: radio talk show host and former Fox personality Glenn Beck.

In March 2010, Project Veritas "citizen journalists" secretly taped a lunch with two top-ranking NPR fundraisers.

In the tape, people affiliated with Project Veritas said they represented a fictitious Muslim charity and implied they had ties to a purported terrorist group. In the conversation, one of the fundraisers seemed unconcerned about the donors' questionable relationships and made disparaging remarks about members of the Tea Party.

Less than 24 hours after the video was posted, both the fundraiser and NPR's president, Vivian Schiller - already plagued by questions over her firing of commentator Juan Williams - had resigned.

But the day after the resignations, reporters for Beck's blog, TheBlaze.com, posted a story stating they had reviewed unedited footage of the NPR luncheon and compared it to the edited footage released to the public.

They had some concerns.

"Perspective and context are essential elements in bringing truth to the forefront," they wrote. "To exclude or alter them can obscure truths rather than reveal them."

Embedding nine clips (no longer available) in their story, they identified specific edits that raised questions about the reliability of O'Keefe's work.

"Anyone looking at the edited version of the Project Veritas video would be concerned about the conduct and views expressed by the NPR representatives. But should we also be concerned about the deceptive nature of some of the video's representations? Some will say no - the end justifies any means, even if unethical," they wrote. "Others may be bothered by these tactics and view similar projects with a greater degree of skepticism."

And Beck, who told listeners he was on vacation when the NPR video was posted, later said he was pleased with his staff's work.

"You don't now take what you have and edit something to make them say something that they didn't say. I mean, you have no credibility then," Beck is widely quoted saying.

The blogosphere exploded with speculation about possible internecine warfare within the so-called conservative media. But it was clear that O'Keefe's work was under attack from more than those who see him as a political enemy.

O'Keefe defends his work.

"It's disingenuous criticism to say that we edit our videos," he told the Monitor. "Every journalist edits. You're going to edit my commentary, and that's fine. All Pulitzer Prize winners edit their journalism. In fact, they mince words, advance narratives, rearrange sentences, in order to highlight what they want to highlight."

 Legal line crossed

But O'Keefe takes exception to what's been highlighted about him, namely his criminal record.

"I've suffered as a result of that," he said. "I've suffered. To this day, major newspapers (incorrectly) print that I'm a convicted felon, because journalists chose to selectively edit."

In the midst of the nationwide health care debate in late 2009 and early 2010, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, said she wasn't able to take calls from constituents because her phones were jammed.

To test her claim, O'Keefe and several companions went to Landrieu's New Orleans office. Two of them dressed as telephone repairmen, and at least one was secretly wearing recording equipment. But O'Keefe maintains he never wanted to tamper with the senator's phones, as the federal government later charged. He said he just wanted to record what was going on in the office.

In 2010, he pleaded guilty to entering a federal building under false pretenses, a class B misdemeanor.

"When I was inside the senator's office, I stated that I was waiting for somebody when in fact I was not, which is a false pretense," O'Keefe said. "Of course, I would argue that that precedent would establish that we should sue all of the congressmen, lobbyists and senators in Washington, D.C., for entering their offices using false pretenses."

He was sentenced to three years of probation and 100 hours of community service, which he said he spent clearing trails and "digging rocks with pick-axes" near the Appalachian Trail.

O'Keefe said his treatment by the courts could presage an erosion of First Amendment protections.

"What type of precedent does it set for us to prosecute citizen journalists simply because we don't like what they're exposing?" O'Keefe said.

His probation is up in May 2013. Until then, he needs permission to leave New Jersey. He said he's "somewhat of a political prisoner."

"I don't want to talk too much about this because I'm still under supervision and everything I say may be used against me," he said. "But I don't get to travel very often; some of my travel requests have been rejected."

He's been to New Hampshire twice in his life, he said. Once, en route to Maine, he and his sister drove up Mount Washington.

He said he was most recently here in September 2011, when he and Breitbart spoke to Republicans in Nashua. O'Keefe said he was paid to speak at the event, which he said was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, a group affiliated with the Koch brothers, who promote conservative and libertarian causes.

O'Keefe said he could not remember how much he was paid and could not remember which local politicians he met.

"There were a lot of people there, I don't know who," O'Keefe said. "I mean it could have been half of your Legislature there. I don't know. I don't remember people's names."

 More to do

Despite the travel restrictions, O'Keefe has continued his efforts - his targets include journalism professors ("To Catch a Journalist") and the New Jersey Education Association ("Teachers Unions Gone Wild").

His father said the family is "hounded" when O'Keefe's higher-impact videos hit the internet and that they've received threats.

O'Keefe shared one such voicemail, in which a man identifying himself as Tyrone said he was calling from a federal prison in Louisiana. "We were just wondering when James was going to get here," said the caller, who also implied that O'Keefe was a homosexual.

O'Keefe did not say when the message was left.

"It's just a very unfortunate thing in our society where people feel they need to express themselves that way," his father said.

But O'Keefe said he's not going to stop.

He said "Primary of the Living Dead" was funded through a $50,000 donation to Project Veritas. He declined to name the donor.

Although O'Keefe said three people were involved in the New Hampshire videos, only one has been identified: Spencer Meads, whose Twitter account indicates he attended Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich events before and on primary day.

Meads did not respond to an email requesting an interview.

"He's very, very busy right now with a couple special projects," said O'Keefe, who also said more videos from his "larger, nationwide investigation" into voter fraud are forthcoming.

"You'll see us do it again," O'Keefe said.

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com.)




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