The New York Times on Conservative Sting Artist James O’Keefe

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Filed under: Political Pranks

From Peter Maloney:

Stinger: James O”™Keefe”™s Greatest Hits
by Zev Chafets
The New York Times
July 27, 2011

The temperature was hovering near 90 degrees on the afternoon of Memorial Day when James O”™Keefe III emerged from the woods and ambled over to my car. He was tall and thin, with pale skin and matted reddish hair. When his mug shot ran in the papers, some people told him he looked like Matthew Modine. Others said Lee Harvey Oswald. On the day I met him, he wore muddy work boots, filthy jeans and, despite the heat, a long-sleeved shirt. “Keeps the mosquitoes off,” he said. All day he was in the outback of a regional park just west of the Hudson, breaking rocks with a pickax to construct a trail. As a boy he was an Eagle Scout, but this wasn”™t a nature project. O”™Keefe, the man whose video stings helped take down high-ranking people at National Public Radio and led to the demise of Acorn, the nation”™s biggest grass-roots community organizing group, was doing federal time.

Eighteen months ago O”™Keefe and three confederates, two dressed as telephone repairmen, walked into the New Orleans office of Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. This was during the debate over President Obama”™s health-care plan, and angry opponents of the bill, which Landrieu supported, claimed their calls weren”™t being answered. Landrieu”™s staff said the voice-mail system was not working properly because of high call volume, and O”™Keefe”™s guys were out to get her staff to say that the phones were really fine while he captured the exchange on film. Similar strategies worked well in the past, but this time he was arrested and brought before a federal judge. In the end, he pleaded to a misdemeanor charge of entering federal property under false pretenses, paid a $1,500 fine and was sentenced to three years of probation and 100 hours of community service.

O”™Keefe wasn”™t happy about spending his Memorial Day turning rocks into pebbles to pay his debt to society, but what really bothered him were the terms of his probation. He couldn”™t leave New Jersey, his home state, without court approval, and the court in New Orleans, where he was sentenced, had turned down a travel request. At first O”™Keefe feared revealing this bit of information “” “my enemies will use it against me,” he said darkly “” but indignation overcame caution. “I have to get government permission to accept speaking dates, which is how I make my living. I can”™t travel to work on new projects. And I can”™t leave to train others.”

To him, this was the most galling restriction. O”™Keefe aspires to more than making movies. He seems to be styling himself as the organizer and commander in chief of a vast guerrilla army of young conservatives trained in his methods and inspired by his example. “There are already dozens of teams out there working,” he told me. “And there are thousands more who want to learn and get involved. The more they restrict me, the more they inspire me.” He extracted a cellphone from the pocket of his work shirt. “Have you ever heard of a Russian named Solzhenitsyn?” he asked. The question reminded me that O”™Keefe, who in some ways is knowing and cynical, is also just 27. For a moment I thought he was going to call the Soviet dissident, who died in 2008, but he simply wanted to access and declaim a few lines of a Solzhenitsyn speech on liberty, law and the abuse of government power, which he thought I should find relevant to his predicament.

“I”™m not comparing my situation to the gulag,” he said. “But I speak truth to power. You”™d think liberal baby boomers would support me. Isn”™t that what the “™60s were all about? Do we really want political prisoners in America?” Still, the restrictions he faced weren”™t really slowing him down. As we spoke, he told me, an army of videographers was spreading out across the land and taking aim at a fresh target. This will be the biggest one yet, he promised.

My first meeting with O”™Keefe, a month or so earlier, was somewhat awkward. He arrived at the Chart House restaurant in Weehawken, N.J., right on time, but he seemed slightly surprised he had showed up at all. “You”™re from The New York Times,” he said. “How can I be sure you”™ll be objective and accurate?”

“The same way I can be sure you”™re not filming this conversation,” I replied.

O”™Keefe assured me that he would never do such a thing. I assured him that my article would be a model of journalistic rectitude. I think it is fair to say that neither of us was fully convinced, then or in our subsequent encounters. He came to the meeting with a large plastic bag full of newspaper clippings of his exploits. Most of them, he felt, were examples of shoddy journalism. O”™Keefe is not a fan of the media. “All journalists are either pundits or stenographers,” he told me, a remark I duly noted in my notebook. “We need stenographers, as long as they record the truth,” he added graciously.

I made it clear to O”™Keefe that, in addition to faithfully relating his thoughts, I wanted to see him in action. “You mean see how the sausage is made?” he asked. “I don”™t know about that.”

“Take your time and think about it,” I said. We walked out of the restaurant together, and by the time we reached his car “” a 1975 Triumph Spitfire convertible “” he had made his decision. “I”™ll call you when there”™s something going on,” he said.

The call came a couple of weeks later, on a blustery Saturday afternoon. O”™Keefe and an actor were shooting “b-roll” for a coming sting. “I can”™t tell you what the actual project is,” he said. “That would compromise the mission. But I think this will be interesting for you. Meet me in an hour at Liberty State Park in Jersey City.”

When I arrived, O”™Keefe was on one knee, aiming his Sony high-definition camcorder at a young fellow clad in a leather jacket, Glengarry military hat and kilt. A white fox head sporran dangled between his legs. He wore shades and carried a briefcase, which turned out to be full of gold- and silver-plated bars that he took out and replaced at O”™Keefe”™s direction. In the distance, with her back to the scene, loomed Lady Liberty. It seemed appropriate that she was being filmed from her blind side.

The fellow in the kilt introduced himself as Sean Murphy. When I asked him for the spelling of his given name, he stumbled. “It”™s an alias,” O”™Keefe explained, which he would use on the videos. Sean had a black “™84 Corvette, and O”™Keefe filmed him climbing in and out of the driver”™s seat several times. They wrapped the shot, jumped in the car and peeled out to the New Jersey Turnpike with me, in a rented blue Corolla, in hot pursuit. For the next few hours we careered around north Jersey, stopping at various sites to shoot pieces of the puzzle. One was at the Bayonne docks, where huge shipping containers stacked five and six high behind a storm fence formed a backdrop. It seemed to me that someone might construe filming here as suspicious, but O”™Keefe was untroubled. “It”™s completely legal to be here,” he said. “Besides, there are no security cameras around here. I checked it out.”

O”™Keefe”™s stings, marked by outlandish costumes and outrageous stories, are as much theater as political statement. But there is nothing of the merry prankster about him. He is a worrier, with the bitten-down fingernails to prove it. He has a keen eye for the absurdity and hypocrisy of others, but it is unmatched by self-deprecating humor or a discernible sense of fun.

As a director, he is all business. Our final destination was Newark Liberty International Airport, and in the baggage area he slipped Sean a pocket-size audio recorder and instructed him to approach the Welcome Desk, swivel his head as if searching for something and strike up a conversation with the clerk. “Tell him you”™ve spoken with health-department officials and you need to pick up your product, your shipment. Ask him where the docks are. Have the conversation, see how it goes.”

Sean ambled over to the desk, where a young man in a red jacket began leafing through schedules, trying to be of help. O”™Keefe stood 50 feet away, behind a baggage cart, his Sony at hip level, obscured by the handlebars, filming. The scene took about two minutes, and it required just one take.

Gold and silver bars, a black Corvette, a mysterious shipment “” I still had no idea what O”™Keefe”™s sting was going to be. But no matter what it exposed, I doubted it would be more frightening than the fact that two young guys, one in a kilt, the other equipped with a video camera, can film the Statue of Liberty, the New Jersey docks and a major international airport without attracting any attention.

“One thing you have to know about me is that I”™m a builder,” O”™Keefe told me. “My grandfather is a carpenter, and he spent his life making things out of nothing. I”™m that way, too. A lot of people sit around discussing what to do. They draw up proposals, look for funding and nothing happens. I grab my camera and go do it.”

O”™Keefe grew up in Westwood, N.J., and still lives with his parents. His father is an engineer, his mother a physical therapist. In high school he was a theater guy, but Rutgers radicalized him. He was incensed by what he considered the political correctness on campus. Soon he began writing biting columns in the college newspaper, The Daily Targum, which caught the eye of Morton Blackwell, the head of the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Va., which he founded 32 years ago. The institute trains young conservative activists and budding journalists (including Ainsley Earhardt and Adam Housley of Fox News). In all, Blackwell says that there are some 90 institute graduates working in local and network news around the country. The institute has also helped establish more than 100 conservative alternative campus newspapers and magazines, and it gave O”™Keefe seed money for The Centurion. O”™Keefe”™s last editorial, “I Have a Dream,” set forth a vision of a college where, among other things, conservative views were respected, Christian tradition was honored and people realized that “guns are no more responsible for Columbine than spoons are responsible for Michael Moore”™s obesity.”

Rutgers was also the target of O”™Keefe”™s first sting. He and two friends, posing as members of the Irish Heritage Society, met with a dining-hall administrator to complain that the “green-cladded huckster” leprechaun on the Lucky Charms cereal boxes sold in the cafeteria was offensive. The cereal wasn”™t banned, but the clip of the Rutgers official solemnly weighing the merits of the case became an instant right-wing campus classic.

After graduating in 2006, O”™Keefe went to work at the Leadership Institute. “James was an extremely hard worker,” Blackwell says. “He probably conducted about 75 training programs around the country.” In California he met Lila Rose, a student at U.C.L.A. Posing as a couple, they visited two offices of Planned Parenthood in Los Angeles. At one, Rose, who claimed to be 15 years old and pregnant, was advised by a worker to lie about her age to qualify for an abortion. “Just figure out a birthday that works,” the Planned Parenthood staff member said. “I don”™t know anything.” This video cost two people their jobs. One was the Planned Parenthood employee; the other was James O”™Keefe.

“We teach conservatives how to focus their principles, but we don”™t take positions on contentious issues,” says Blackwell, whose institute”™s tax-exempt status depends on at least the veneer of nonpartisanship. “We told James to end his sting activities or leave.”

It wasn”™t a hard choice for a zealous young man. For a while O”™Keefe did freelance reporting. He also began to work on his Acorn prank, in which he and a woman named Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and a prostitute and secretly recorded officials advising them on how to break various laws. He got some financial support from Andrew Breitbart, the conservative media provocateur who also helped disseminate the Acorn videos. The two are still on friendly terms, but O”™Keefe struck out on his own, establishing Project Veritas, whose mission is “to investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud and other misconduct in both public and private institutions in order to achieve a more ethical and transparent society.” In April 2011, the I.R.S. granted Veritas tax-exempt status. O”™Keefe considers this to be a vindication, proof that he is a nonpartisan journalistic investigator.

“Undercover journalism goes back to at least the 1820s in this country,” says Brooke Kroeger, the director of the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, who has written a book on the subject, to be published next year. “And the use of hidden cameras to do it came into prominence after World War II.” Muckrakers, of course, are advocates, loved or despised according to the targets they choose. “For years, advocacy groups such as those for a better government have partnered with journalistic organizations,” Kroeger says. “Last year the Humane Society released an undercover video of the inhumane treatment of pigs in Virginia that got picked up by media around the country and won applause from animal lovers. Many of those same people vociferously went after O”™Keefe for his exposé of NPR. It”™s basically a question of what you care about and what side you are on.”

Earlier this year, two of O”™Keefe”™s actors, posing as fictitious representatives of a Muslim philanthropic organization, had lunch with Ron Schiller, NPR”™s senior vice president for development. In the course of ingratiating himself with these potential donors, Schiller was caught denigrating Tea Party members and Republicans in language that the corporation later said it was appalled by. The scandal hastened the departures of both Schiller and his boss, Vivian Schiller (no relation). When it was suggested that the tapes had been dishonestly edited, O”™Keefe invited people to watch them in their entirety. “He said it, that”™s just a fact,” Dana Davis Rehm, a spokesman for NPR, said of Ron Schiller. In the aftermath, NPR conducted sessions on ethics for its support and operational staff and is planning to publish updated ethics guidelines in September.

His takedown of Acorn was even more devastating, although Bertha Lewis, Acorn”™s former chief executive, contends that the videos were dishonest. “He is demon, a liar and a cheat,” she says. “What he did was despicable. He created a fiction.” Bertha Lewis still insists that Acorn did not offer advice on how to break the law. Clark Hoyt, a former public editor for The New York Times, reviewed O”™Keefe”™s raw footage and edited tapes and concluded that “the most damning words match the transcripts and the audio, and do not seem out of context.”

There is no doubt that O”™Keefe disseminated only the material that supported his thesis about Acorn, but this kind of selectivity is the norm in advocacy journalism. “I put James O”™Keefe in the same category as Michael Moore,” says Dean Mills, dean of the University of Missouri”™s school of journalism. “Some ethicists say it is never right for a journalist to deceive for any reason, but there are wrongs in the world that will never be exposed without some kind of subterfuge.”

“People can”™t control me,” O”™Keefe says. “No one tells me what to investigate.” But that freedom from oversight means he has no one to offer a second opinion. Andrew Breitbart, summing it up after the fact, called the Landrieu sting a “high risk, low reward” mistake. O”™Keefe himself acknowledges that he used bad judgment in that operation. “If I had it to do over again, I”™d do it outside a federal building.”

Hundreds of people contact James O”™Keefe with suggestions for investigations and stings. He looks for situations that illustrate what he sees as larger injustices. He also recruits activists. “It takes a lot of what you could call courage to go into the opposition”™s presence and tell a story under a false name,” he says. “People ready to improvise and maybe get caught.”

I met two such risk-takers at a nighttime strategy session in Room 218 of the Comfort Inn Hotel in Paramus, N.J. Vanessa Jean-Louis, a 26-year-old woman of Haitian descent who counsels inner-city youth in northern New Jersey, was there. She met O”™Keefe at last year”™s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington and volunteered for Project Veritas. Shaughn Adeleye, a Nigerian-American in his 30s who has worked with O”™Keefe before, joined us by Skype from Lafayette, La.

When it comes to motivation, O”™Keefe is a student of the left-wing community organizer Saul Alinksy and of Douglas Hyde, a British Communist who became a Catholic convert and activist. Their shared insight is that action begins with a personal concern. Jean-Louis, for whom this would be an inaugural project, was worried about the children she worked with. “Ninety percent of the kids have no father living at home,” she said. “They”™re maladapted because of government policies that leave them fatherless.”

“There has always been a sense of family in the African-American community, and it is being chipped away,” Adeleye said.

O”™Keefe sat on the couch, a computer on his lap, typing. Adeleye said, “We should expose the incentives that the system gives for fatherless families.”

“What agencies do this?” O”™Keefe asked.

“Welfare,” Jean-Louis said.

“We need to find out the specifics,” O”™Keefe said. He didn”™t challenge Jean-Louis”™s assumption; it is standard conservative doctrine. But there is a difference between a topic and a story.

“A couple could approach a caseworker and say they”™re thinking of getting married, but they can”™t decide if they should because it might be a loss in benefits,” Adeleye offered.

“A mom and a baby daddy, and the caseworker telling them not to get married,” Jean-Louis added.

“Even if they love each other,” O”™Keefe said, giving the story an emotional center. “If the caseworker still says not to get married, that would be really powerful. Of course the headline will say, “˜O”™Keefe Goes After Welfare,”™ but some people actually need welfare. We”™re looking to expose people who don”™t. Maybe we should give the couple good jobs. That way there would be no economic justification for telling them to stay on welfare.”

“Right,” Jean-Louis. “A caseworker telling a black man not to marry.”

“A white caseworker,” Adeleye said.

Jean-Louis laughed. “A white male caseworker telling a black male.”

“You won”™t find a white male caseworker,” Adeleye said.

“O.K., a white woman caseworker telling a black man not to marry a black woman. You know sisters are going to be outraged at that!”

“Maybe we should do a comparison video,” O”™Keefe said, “with a white couple or a white man.”

“Oh, wow!” Jean-Louis said. “If there is no racial aspect to this, if it is just policy, it”™s bigger than just race!”

“Exactly,” O”™Keefe said. “Marriage is being challenged, made extinct.”

“The only thing is,” Jean-Louis said, “I don”™t want anybody losing their job over this, just because they are following policy.”

“This isn”™t about just one person or a few bad apples,” O”™Keefe said. His critics charge that he often goes after small fry instead of taking on the higher-ups. This was certainly true in the cases of Acorn and Planned Parenthood. But he argues that by showing what goes on in the trenches, it is possible to infer patterns of institutional behavior.

“Right,” Jean-Louis said. “The objective is to affect policy.”

“No,” O”™Keefe said firmly. “The object is to expose reality. We don”™t choose the consequences. Let the people change things. Remember, Congress and the president defunded Acorn, not me.”

In the woods on Memorial Day, I asked O”™Keefe if he knew the song “I Fought the Law” (“and the law won”). “Another side of the “™60s,” I said. He smiled without mirth. He was stuck in New Jersey, unable to pursue his mission, and after I left, he”™d be heading back to work among the mosquitoes.

But June brought O”™Keefe good news. The court in New Orleans decided to allow him to travel for work. And earlier this month he began releasing a series of videos taken in Medicaid offices around the country. In one of the first he made public, “Sean Murphy,” dressed in the same regalia he wore on the New Jersey shoot, presented himself to a Medicaid worker in Charleston, S.C., as an Irish drug importer and Irish Republican Army member who wanted coverage for 25 wounded comrades who entered the U.S. illegally. The kindly worker spent time photocopying applications and dealing with this improbable applicant. While she made it clear that he had to abide by the regulations, she also assured him that she didn”™t want to know details. “It is definitely not in my own best interest to divulge anything to anyone,” she said. “I do not want to go to jail.” In another video, shot in Ohio, two fake Russian drug dealers requested government help. It isn”™t exactly a secret that some Medicaid money winds up in unqualified hands, but it was surprising to see how willingly minor officials turned a blind eye and, in some cases, even offered advice on how to game the system. No money was distributed, but there will be repercussions. The first video was out for only hours before an Ohio state spokesman called it “extremely troubling.” Soon after, it was announced that the Medicaid worker who coached them on how to hide their ownership of an $800,000 automobile had been placed on paid administrative leave. Officials in at least two states immediately began their own investigations.

Had the videos revealed a larger injustice, O”™Keefe”™s stated goal? Had they demonstrated waste and abuse in Great Society initiatives run amok, or were they simply exposing the failures of some well-meaning, low-level bureaucrats in a basically worthy government program? It depends on your perspective. As for James O”™Keefe, he is already looking for the next target.

photo: Curran Hatleberg for The New York Times