Monday, March 11, 2013

ACORN and James O’Keefe III: The Tiny Crumb of Justice

Acorn and James O'Keefe: Nomadic Politicsby Nomad

Mr. James O’Keefe III has always been a useful tool for the conservatives. 
The right wing  can distantly applaud his antics under the pretense of social good works, and at the same time, they can disapprove of his controversial techniques. He can do things that no respectable journalist would dream of doing and, best of all, he can be painted as hero to naive but politically-mind young conservatives. 
By friends and foes, O'Keefe has been called many things: a hero, a prankster, a provocateur, guerilla reporter, a film-maker, an activist, a douchebag, even- though more rarely- a journalist.

Last week, 28-year- old O’Keefe was back in the news, but this time he was not in control of the spotlight. 
In the past, we have examined O’Keefe’s pivotal role in bringing down the community action organization, ACORN. Here’s a follow-up to that story.

James O'Keefe, the conservative activist whose hidden-camera stings have been aimed at liberal targets, has agreed to pay $100,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former employee of the group ACORN, according to documents filed Thursday in federal court here.
As part of the settlement, O'Keefe says he "regrets any pain" suffered by Juan Carlos Vera, who was interviewed by O'Keefe and an associate in ACORN's office in National City, near the U.S.-Mexico border, on Aug. 18, 2009.
As a result of O'Keefe's covert operation against ACORN, Vera was fired for "unacceptable conduct." The footage appeared to show him advising the duo on how to set up a supposed child prostitution ring. However, the footage didn't tell the full story, hence the settlement.

Before you sit back in your chair and admire a world in which all things are put to right, you need to hear the rest of his public statement.

"Half-assed and Insincere"
The mainstream media has portrayed O'Keefe as apologetic but that's not quite accurate. Eugene Iredale, attorney for Juan Carlos Vera, said of the O’Keefe’s apology “Like everything O’Keefe does, it’s half-assed and insincere.”
Nicely put, Eugene.

“There comes a time when the cost to defend yourself against meritless accusations becomes so burdensome financially and personally, it is simply too great. The settlement admits no liability and there is no benefit from extending this ridiculous lawsuit.
O’Keefe’s defense plays into the comic book image of the lone crusader against him. Personally. He certainly was not about to admit to doing anything unethical. 
So as not to jeopardize with that rogue hero narrative, O’Keefe requested that the details of the settlement be kept confidential
(So much for his love for the truth and full exposure and openness.)

Fortunately, the claimant in the case, Juan Carlos Vera, preferred transparency more than O’Keefe. The settlement agreement was posted online. A careful reading fills in some of the blanks.
Incidentally another defendant in the ACORN-Vera lawsuit, Hannah Giles settled last year. Giles, who had been studying journalism at Florida International University, dropped out in order to “pursue demands to keep up with public appearances and job offers.” 

There was even talk about a reality show called- brace yourself- “Call of the Giles.” Move over, Bristol! 

(So forget a university degree, ladies. It looks like posing as a hooker for a cheaply made video is actually the fast track way to achieve fame.)

But back to O'Keefe and the lawsuit.
On his website O’Keefe writes this about the settlement:
“Sadly, this is the cost of exposing the truth. That’s why so few people do it. There are liability issues inherent in undercover journalism. But let me be clear, this lawsuit had nothing to do with editing or misrepresentation.
In fact, this is not cost of exposing the truth. This is the cost of not telling the whole truth. That's something O'Keefe seems to have a problem with.
And the statement above is just another perfect example. This lawsuit, he says, had nothing to do with editing or misrepresentation. And yet, a unmentioned part of the settlement reads:

“O'Keefe states that at the time of the publication of the video of Juan Carlos, he was unaware of Vera's claim to have notified a police officer of the incident.”
That, according to the settlement, was why O’Keefe failed to mention that Vera alerted the police about suspicious his videos on ACORN  However according to the police, Vera had actually contacted the police only a few days after he was filmed, and prior to the release of the video tapes. 
O'Keefe had no intention of following up and checking to see if ACORN workers had conscientiously informed police. 
It probably never crossed his mind. It would have spoiled the story.  
He can claim to have been unaware, of course. Proving that he did know is next to impossible. 

One source explains in more detail:
Unbeknownst to O’Keefe, Vera had notified the police after his encounter with O’Keefe. But O’Keefe posted his fraudulent and heavily edited videotapes anyway with the help of Andrew Breitbart.
Whether O'Keefe was aware or not, after the tapes were released, the problem of misrepresentation continued. By September 22 2009, some journalists had uncovered previously unreported details.
National City police said .. that Juan Carlos Vera contacted his cousin, a police detective, to get advice on what to with information on possible human smuggling.
Even then, after that news broke (that Vera had reported the suspicious behavior to officials a few weeks after the original videos emerged), O'Keefe could have issued a clarification. He did not. 
By that time, the story had taken a life of its own. The House of Representatives had already voted on de-funding ACORN less than a few weeks after O'Keefe had released the video tapes. 
Despite questions about authenticity of the videos from ACORN spokesmen, Republican Representative from Virginia Eric Cantor told the House:
"ACORN has violated serious federal laws, and today the House voted to ensure that taxpayer dollars would no longer be used to fund this corrupt organization."
Apparently Cantor's accusations were based solely on O'Keefe's video. If that timeline is correct, O'Keefe really had a limited opportunity to step forward with a retraction or clarification. He chose to allow the misrepresentation to stand. The rush to judgment had effectively swept away any rational discussion about the authenticity of  the videos and especially about ethical journalism.
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This failure to report the full ACORN story was, in fact, a pattern of behavior by O'Keefe, according to MediaMatters. Besides conveniently being unaware that Vera had contacted authorities, O'Keefe failed to mention that
In at least six of those instances, either the activists did not clearly tell the ACORN employees that they were planning to engage in child prostitution; or the ACORN employees refused to help them or apparently deliberately misled them; or ACORN employees contacted the police following their visit.
Therefore both deceptive editing and misrepresentations were evident in the ACORN case, in spite of what O'Keefe now claims. 

In the end, through O’Keefe’s efforts, ACORN lost all of its government funding and was died to the sound of conservative fanfare. Before any thorough investigation was even launched about the accuracy of the videos and whether there might (just might) be a political motive, a House proposal to cut off all federal money to ACORN passed by a vote of an astonishing 345 to 75. 

Ironically, later investigations in three states found only poor judgment by ACORN staffers but no actual criminality. In California, the attorney general, Edmund G. Brown Jr. pointed the finger directly at O’Keefe. MediaMatters quotes Brown:
"The evidence illustrates..that things are not always as partisan zealots portray them through highly selective editing of reality. Sometimes a fuller truth is found on the cutting room floor."
O’Keefe supporter, Andrew Beitbart, (after repeatedly calling ACORN a criminal organization), ultimately had to backtrack, saying that in a tweet that the 
“ACORN tapes were less about 'criminality' than facility with which employees all knew how to work system for any lowlife wanting govmnt $”
Wherever you are, Andrew, the tapes were not about criminality at all. No crime was found. Nothing illegal. As far as getting the system to work for them for the sake of government money, the same could be said of any Congressman and Senator. 

At his website, it is O’Keefe that is one being accused of being a criminal. The case against him, he charges, a miscarriage of justice.
It was an action under the California Invasion of Privacy Act. The anti-recording statute under which the suit was brought is unconstitutional, overbroad, and gives the police and other public officials too much power.
So despite this settlement, Keefe feels he is the victim here. Nay, says Jimmy, it is the law is wrong. 

However, contrary to his public statement, the case against him was not meritless at all. (And the hefty $100,000 payoff can’t be considered merely a nuisance suit, as O’Keefe claims.) Both Google and Yahoo have faced charges under the privacy law as well. The only question of constitutionality is how it may be applied to innovations in telecommunications, emails, tweets, and mobile phones. 

Importantly, the privacy law in California is not unique. Altogether twelve states forbid the recording of private conversations without the consent of all parties. Those states are California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Washington. (So if you have been recorded by O'Keefe without your permission and you happen to live in these states, you might begin thinking of your legal options.)

In any case, it not for James O’Keefe III to play Supreme Court judge and declare the which laws are and which are not unconstitutional.

The Other Side of Veritas
O’Keefe likes to call himself a “citizen journalist” of the “Gotcha” species in a “relentless pursuit of the facts.” That could be true, certain facts, at least.

The mission of O’Keefe’s organization Project Veritas 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.” 

There’s nothing wrong with that. However there have been more than few questions about the quality of the journalism he promotes, whether he has purposely misrepresented the issues he reports on through editing of his videos. Not just in the ACORN case, either.

Besides that there are some questions about his organization. As a tax exempt 501(c)3 organization, it must be a charitable type organization and not be an action organization, This is defined by the IRS as an organization in which “no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation,.. and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. “ 

Veritas’ recent project regarding the gun control debate would seem to exclude them as a charitable organization. 

There are other problems too. Questions of other violations to its tax exempt status have also been raised. One formal complaint to the IRS states:
Project Veritas claims to be a 501(c)(3) organization, but it is not listed in IRS Publication 78 or various state charity lists. Project Veritas has not responded to numerous written requests for copies of Form 990 filings and other documentation that a 501(c)(3) is required to produce upon request. As a result, Project Veritas appears either to be in violation of IRS regulations on nonprofit disclosures, such as 26 CFR 6104, or to be falsely claiming 501(c)(3) status.
Transparency, anyone?
It wouldn't be the first time that others have also wondered whether O’Keefe’s style of advocacy journalism wasn’t a threat to the tax-exempt status. In fact, one of his early mentors was Morton Blackwell, president of The Leadership Institute where O’Keefe was an employee for roughly a year in 2006-2007. 
To say that Blackwell has a long history as a mover and shaker in the neo-conservative movement is understating things. In 1980 Mr. Blackwell organized the national youth effort for Ronald Reagan. He served for the first three years of the Reagan Administration as Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison
The Leadership Institute, a conservative-funded organization, gives special training to young fresh conservatives in activist journalism and more general organizing techniques. According to its website, since its founding in 1979 founding, the Leadership Institute has trained more than 91,475 students.

Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, and Senator Mitch McConnell are all former alumni. Other graduates of the institute include the gay porn star and male escort turned journalist, Jeff Gannon, who after throwing soft-ball questions at White House press conferences (as well as his lack of press credentials) became a strange dirty joke during the Bush administration. (Investigators were concerned about “a penetration of the White House.”)

However, according to Blackwell, O’Keefe was asked to leave when he had a closer look at O’Keefe’s kind of journalism. 
Blackwell, while giving his support in a general way, was concerned that the projects “"expose the absurdities and illegalities of the left," would threaten the Leadership Institute's tax exempt status.

Other Targets
Other Veritas targets included National Public Radio and Planned Parenthood, both of which are two weeping sores on the backside of the conservatives. 
In the 2011 a Veritas sting operation was conducted against Planned Parenthood, the technique was nearly exactly the same as O’Keefe used against ACORN. The plan was to implicate Planned Parenthood in a scheme of imaginary sex crimes which included child sex abuse. An outrage so monstrous that any defense whatsoever would sound weak. However, the operation backfired when the Planned Parenthood official informed the FBI of the hoax. 

According to a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman, individual clinics reported the matter to local law enforcement. (A critical fact that went unreported by Fox News.)

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, wrote:
“These multi-state visits from men claiming to be engaged in sex trafficking of minors may be a hoax. However, if the representations made by this man are true,” she wrote, they indicate violations of several sex trafficking, prostitution and child sex laws.
“Once inside, these people have recorded ‘undercover’ videos of their conversations with our clinic staff and then selectively and maliciously edited the videos,” she wrote. “This may be happening once again. If so, this kind of activity should be firmly condemned.”
And that wouldn’t be the first time that Planned Parenthood was targeted. O’Keefe and colleague, Lila Rose, on the first series of undercover Planned Parenthood videos back in 2006. 
Apparently taking a page from the Ann Coulter playbook, Rose has reportedly suggested that abortions should be performed in the public square until the "public tired of seeing them and did away with this moral outrage altogether.” (Well, Lila, it hasn’t stopped beheadings and lashings in Saudi Arabia.)

According to the New York Times, even back then, not everybody approved of O’Keefe’s methods.
Liz Farkas, a Rutgers student who called Mr. O’Keefe "a nice guy and a loyal friend," said she grew disillusioned after he asked her to help edit the script of a Planned Parenthood sting.
"It was snippets to make the Planned Parenthood nurse look bad," Ms. Farkas said. "I said: ‘It has no context. You’re just cherry-picking the nurse’s answers.’ He said, ‘Okay’ — and then he just ran it."
It’s this kind of ethical double-standard when it comes to political bias that O’Keefe once said he was dead-set against. We must assume it’s okay when it is done by conservatives. 

The Botched Landrieu Affair
In 2010, O’Keefe, along with three of his colleagues, were arrested while posing as telephone workers inside Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in the Hale Boggs federal complex in New Orleans. The charges against O’Keefe were not insignificant.

According to the New York Times:
On Jan. 25 [2010], two of the men entered the office of Ms. Landrieu, a Democrat, pretending to be telephone repairmen, one of them wearing a hidden video camera on his hard hat. Mr. O’Keefe was also in the office pretending to wait for a friend, but secretly recording the interaction, and another man was waiting outside. All four were arrested and eventually charged with entering federal property under false pretenses, a misdemeanor. The charge carries a maximum term of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.
In the end, O’Keefe received three years of probation, a fine of $1,500 and 100 hours of community service. Despite his guilty plea on the lesser charges, O’Keefe issued a statement which cites a Justice Department official vindicating him of the more serious charge of attempting to tamper with Landrieu’s phones. 

An Associated Press article states:
Attorney J. Garrison Jordan denied the four men were trying to disable or wiretap the phones in Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office at a federal building in New Orleans.
"You’re dealing with kids," he said. "I don’t think they thought it through that far."
On the contrary, men in their mid-twenties are not children. To put the age question into perspective, since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 22 people have been executed for crimes committed while they were under the age of 18. Nobody excused them of being "kids."

Incidentally, one of O’Keefe’s colleagues who posed as a telephone repairman was, according to the Washington Post, Robert Flanagan, the son of William Flanagan, acting U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Louisiana. (Which might explain the leniency in the prosecution.)

The question remains, of course, if this was not his intention why did he and his colleagues pose as telephone workers in the first place. He admits that the reason for the entering the Senator’s office was to investigate if the office was ignoring constituents’ calls during the health care debate. How were they planning to determine that without secretly recording calls? 

The lawyer for the defendants (quoted above) said at the time that “they hoped to get embarrassing video footage of her staff handling constituent calls.” 

That would be a secret recording of private conversation between two individuals , not engaged in any illegal activity without either’s consent. According to a website that advises real journalists, courts and the government have made it illegal for information gatherers and others to engage..
in bugging a room, secretly monitoring telephone conversations (to which the recording subject is not a party) or intercepting computer communications (publishers may, however, disseminate illegally taped conversations if they are of great public interest and the publisher broke no law in acquiring them);

Great public interest? Hmmm. In O’Keefe’s mind perhaps. (Normally that would included evidence that laws were broken. That's not the case here.)

Therefore by the defense attorneys own admission, O’Keefe intended to commit the serious felony of recording conversations in which he was not a party, which is against federal and state wiretapping laws.

*    *    *    *

Despite being on probation, O’Keefe was reportedly seen at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, presumably looking for some concerted liberal plot. A spokesman for O’Keefe stated that his probation officer had given permission but, as one source pointed out at the time, only a judge could have allowed him to leave New Jersey. 

Interestingly, prior to the election, the New Jersey judge had given permission for O'Keefe to attend Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity rallies in Little Rock, Arkansas,  Nashua, NH and Portland, ME as well as other conservative functions in Washington and Seattle. 

However, when O’Keefe was denied permission to Tampa, Florida where he was to headline as a guest speaker for the James Madison Institute, he threw a fit. Referring to the non-travel terms of his probation, he told Politico 
“I was cleared by the government of all felony charges, and whether it’s grossly disproportionate at best or unconstitutional at worst to restrict the travel of a journalist for three years following a class-B misdemeanor.”
As we have seen,, O’Keefe likes to throw the word “unconstitutional” around pretty freely. There was nothing unconstitutional about the matter at all. In fact, his punishment is quite reasonable. According to one authoritative source:
Punishment range for a Class B misdemeanor is confinement in jail for a term not to exceed 180 days, a fine not to exceed $2000, or both fine and confinement. Probation term, if granted, may be up to two years and may be extended an additional three years under certain circumstances.
Actually you could say O’Keefe got off with a slap on the wrist.
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Regarding his James Madison Institute gig, he also added that the audience in Tampa
was pleased to learn that we are building an army of citizen journalists and investigators who are now in almost every state working to protect the American people from voter fraud by exposing deficiencies in the security of our electoral processes,”
Here's a hot news tip for O’Keefe and his army. They might wish to start their crusade against voter fraud right there in Florida. Only a few days ago, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced that two former employees of a company long associated with the Republican Party were charged with a third-degree felony for forging voter registration forms. Strategic Allied Consulting  is run by Nathan Sproul who himself has a colorful record of voter suppression. In fact, Sproul’s company actually shares an address with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. In addition to that, Sproul was former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party. 
[Sproul’s] tactics, traced back to 2004, include: destroying forms by those wishing to register Democrat, using what some might call fraudulent means to de-register Democrats and then there’s are the fictional characters that were registered as Republicans.
According to a story in the Miami Herald:
Strategic Allied Consulting was hired by Republicans to do voter registration drives in Florida and other states. But last fall, the state party fired the company and took the additional step of filing an election fraud complaint against the company with state officials.
This does not end the investigation into Strategic Allied. There are four other cases across the state still under investigation according to [Florida Department of Law Enforcement]
Amazingly, none of these voter irregularities were investigated by O’Keefe and Project Veritas. O’Keefe never showed up at Strategic Allied dressed as a pimp with a pretend hooker. It was left to journalists (real ones) of liberal media outlets like Politicusa to report that news

When it comes to voting fraud, O’Keefe and the Republicans are far better at making allegations than at finding actual evidence. For example, the Washington Post reported back in August 2012:
The Republican National Lawyers Association — devoted to promoting “open, fair and honest elections” — frequently cites the figure of 375 cases of voter impersonation fraud.
But News21, a national investigative reporting project funded by the Carnegie-Knight Initiative, investigated each of those cases and found that not one showed evidence of impersonation fraud. News21 reporters also reached out to election personnel in all 50 states, requesting information on every single reported case of alleged fraud at the polls. The organization’s analysis of 2,068 cases found only 10 related to impersonation. Using those figures, the frequency of poll impersonation is about one in 15 million.
Once again, Project Veritas ignored that investigation too. Never mind, as O’Keefe demonstrated with ACORN, all it takes is very compelling accusation (sex!!) and news organizations hungry for a bit of sensation. 

Nevertheless, somebody will have to pay that $100,000 ACORN settlement. It will be interesting to see who actually foots the bill for services rendered. 

As far as O'Keefe, his legal battles may have just begun. Media Matters has further examples of the misrepresentations in the ACORN case, involving workers in other cities, such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego, New York and Washington, D.C. Ambitious lawyers, lean and mean and as eager to make a name for themselves as O'Keefe, are probably scheduling appointments with former ACORN workers as we speak.

Pricey settlements in every one of these cases isn't going to encourage much recruiting of citizen journalists or sizable donations to Project Veritas.

If he plans to use his usual style of journalism, O”Keefe and "army" will have to have a tactical team of expensive attorneys on standby for Immediate Action Rapid Deployment .