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Activist held in incident at Sen. Landrieu’s office

An activist whose undercover videotapes of the community-organizing group ACORN turned him into a conservative folk hero was arrested with three other men who allegedly posed as telephone repairmen to illegally enter Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu’s office in New Orleans.

According to a federal affidavit unsealed Tuesday, James O’Keefe III, 25, was among four men charged a day earlier with entering federal property under false pretenses to commit a felony after they told an aide to the senator that they needed access to the office’s main phone line.

The document did not say why they allegedly had targeted Landrieu’s office, but the senator from Louisiana has come under attack from conservatives in recent months for her support of the Senate’s healthcare overhaul legislation.

Landrieu was one of the last Democrats to pledge support for the bill and only signed on after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pledged additional aid for Louisiana’s Medicaid program.

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“This is a very unusual situation and somewhat unsettling for me and my staff,” Landrieu said Tuesday in a statement. “I am as interested as everyone else about their motives and purpose, which I hope will become clear as the investigation moves forward.”

O’Keefe shot to fame last summer after he and another conservative activist, Hannah Giles, sometimes posing as a pimp and a prostitute, secretly videotaped ACORN staffers in several cities appearing to give advice on tax evasion, human smuggling and child prostitution.

Outrage over the tapes led Congress last fall to cut federal funding for the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now and prompted more than a dozen state and local authorities to investigate the community advocacy group. California ACORN, which said the video scandal had done irreparable damage to the ACORN brand, broke away from the national organization this month.

Another of the defendants, 24-year-old Robert Flanagan, was identified as the son of William Flanagan, the acting head of the U.S. attorney’s office in Shreveport, La.

According to FBI Special Agent Stephen Rayes, O’Keefe was the first to appear in the reception area of Landrieu’s office on the 10th floor of the Hale Boggs Federal Building on Monday morning.

O’Keefe, Rayes said, told a member of the senator’s staff that he was “waiting for someone to arrive.”

The agent said that Flanagan and Joseph Basel, 24, then appeared in the reception area, “each dressed in blue denim pants, a blue work shirt, a light fluorescent vest, a tool belt and carrying white, construction-style hard hats.” They said they were there “to fix problems with the telephone system.”

O’Keefe appeared to be filming the scene with his cellphone as Basel “manipulated” the handset of the receptionist’s phone, Rayes said.

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Flanagan and Basel then asked for access to the telephone closet and told a General Services Administration employee on the 10th floor that they were there to repair the phone lines, Rayes said. When asked for their credentials, Flanagan and Basel said they had left their identification in their vehicle.

Flanagan and Basel admitted they were not phone repairmen and had entered Landrieu’s office under false pretenses, Rayes said.

The agent added that O’Keefe and a fourth man, Stan Dai, also 24, admitted they had helped in the “planning, coordination and preparation of the operation.” O’Keefe “further admitted to recording Flanagan and Basel inside Landrieu’s office,” according to the affidavit. All four were arrested, Rayes said.

The men were released Tuesday on unsecured bonds of $10,000 each. If convicted, each faces a maximum of 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

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O’Keefe’s father, James O’Keefe Jr., said in a telephone interview that he wasn’t sure what his son was doing at Landrieu’s office.

“He was maybe trying to do a prank to get some information, but that’s about it,” he said. “He wouldn’t break the law. He would know better than that.”

The 55-year-old engineer in Westwood, N.J., called his son “an upstanding young man who is maybe stretching the limits a little bit.”

“He wants to hound the truth, and he’s using different tactics to get out the truth,” the elder O’Keefe said.

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In October, after the ACORN videos aired, Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) introduced a resolution praising O’Keefe and Giles for “their diligent investigative journalism.” More than 30 Republican members of Congress co-sponsored the resolution.

Although O’Keefe and Giles were heralded as heroes on conservative websites and talk shows, they have been mired in lawsuits since the videos aired.

Last fall, ACORN sued O’Keefe and Giles in Baltimore, saying the audio portion of their video shot in ACORN’s office there was obtained illegally. And on Thursday, O’Keefe and Giles were sued in federal court in Philadelphia by an ACORN employee featured in one of the films.

O’Keefe occasionally blogs for the conservative website BigGovernment.com. In a post several months ago, he pledged to continue to attack liberal organizations.

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“It is time,” he wrote, for conservative activists to “create chaos for glory.”

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

kate.linthicum@latimes.com

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