LAS VEGAS -- No question about it, getting arrested and charged with a felony has been a sobering experience for video provocateur James O’Keefe, the 27-year-old “citizen journalist” best known for exposing abominable advice dispensed by staffers at a handful of outposts of the community organizing group ACORN.
Over the weekend, O’Keefe discussed his work and gave pointers to a gathering of conservative bloggers. At Americans for Prosperity’s Right Online, he showed videos of some of his past and current projects and when asked by one blogger for his best advice, he offered, “Don’t get caught.”
O’Keefe does not suffer from a lack of confidence, but in a brief interview after his Saturday afternoon session, he seemed slightly humbled by his serious brush with the law in 2010. Still, he remains indignant at his treatment by federal officials and the media.
Two years ago in January, O’Keefe was arrested in a federal building in Louisiana, where he had gone to execute one of his now-trademark video stings against U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat.
His plan was to pose as a telephone repairman to investigate claims that Landrieu’s staff ignored constituent calls. But O’Keefe and three associates were arrested instead.
Originally charged with a felony, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of entering federal property under false pretenses and eventually was sentenced to three years’ probation, 100 hours of community service and a $1,500 fine.
“I couldn’t watch ‘Law & Order’ for six months,” he said. “I couldn’t watch cops and people going to jail because when you are being charged with a 10-year felony you have not committed, it’s very difficult.”
He remains outraged that his videotape was confiscated and, he claimed, destroyed.
“How many people in this room knew that in Louisiana they destroyed my videotape?” O’Keefe asked the room of about 100 online activists. “Don’t you think that’s a relevant fact the media should have told you? Can you imagine if I destroyed a videotape? It’s the greatest injustice, what they did to me. But nobody cares, nobody cares.”
Later, he told a reporter, “You don’t know what injustice is until you have been shackled in federal chains for a crime you have not committed, and watched every single journalist in America slander you and defame you over and over and over again. Calling you ‘wire tapper,’ ‘felon.’ All I did was sit on the couch and use a pretext. I said I was waiting for somebody and I wasn’t. That was my crime. A false statement.”
At his sentencing, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the judge told O’Keefe he needed to learn “where to draw the line” with investigative methods.
Being on federal probation, O’Keefe said, has limited his work. But his New Jersey-based organization, Project Veritas, is busily trying to demonstrate that lax voter registration rules can be exploited by those who would commit voter fraud.
So far, he’s executed his stings in Vermont, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Washington, D.C. He stresses that neither he nor his colleagues have voted illegally anywhere.
Many of the targeted public officials -- and liberal commentators such as Al Sharpton -- have pointed out that O’Keefe and his associates seem to be the only people who are attempting to commit fraud (such as claiming to be dead people in order to receive ballots). “You don’t prove there’s been voter fraud by committing it yourself,” one public official told a local news station in a video O’Keefe played.
But O’Keefe said his project has had an effect. Voter ID laws or other types of reform have been proposed or adopted in three states where he’s conducted stings.
And he’s potentially facing more legal scrutiny. “D.C. is investigating me,” he said. “The New Hampshire attorney general is trying to issue a criminal grand jury subpoena. The North Carolina Board of Elections is investigating me. And the Vermont secretary of state is investigating me.
“They’ll never attempt to expose the problem,” said O’Keefe, “they’ll always come after the person who exposes the problem.”
For those hoping to follow O’Keefe’s footsteps, he showed a compilation of his video projects, which began when he was a student at Rutgers University. To mock political correctness, he demanded the school cafeteria pull Lucky Charms cereal, which, he claimed, promotes stereotypes of Irish Americans.
“As you can see we are not all short and green,” says O’Keefe in an undercover video during a meeting with the hapless woman in charge of the cafeteria. Holding a box of the cereal, O’Keefe says, “There is what appears to be an Irish American on the front cover, and he is protrayed as a little green-cladded gnome, a hucksler [sic], and we think this undermines the importance of St. Patrick’s Day.”
O’Keefe has starred in or masterminded other notable stings.
He once called a Planned Parenthood office asking if he could make a donation specifically to abort black babies because he didn’t want his child competing with black children for college admission. The enthusiastic response from the Planned Parenthood staffer on the other end of the line embarrassed the organization, which has been under fire for years by anti-abortion activists.
More recently, O’Keefe set up a sting involving National Public Radio’s fundraising chief, Ron Schiller, whose lunchtime banter with a couple of men impersonating rich potential donors from a nonexistent Muslim organization was cringe-worthy and resulted in Schiller leaving NPR.
Last year, Project Veritas released videos showing how easy it was to obtain applications for Medicaid. (Not Medicaid itself, just the applications.) One showed a pair of men posing as Russian drug dealers getting advice from a government worker.
When a blogger asked O’Keefe whether his targets are “seriously that stupid … that nobody comes up and says, ‘Hey, I don’t think this is legit,’ ” he delivered an unexpected defense.
“This is not stupidity,” O’Keefe replied. “They are trying to do their jobs. The system forces them into it. The Medicaid people … are well intentioned. It’s the system that says give free stuff to anybody that comes in. It’s a system that thrives on getting more money and a gravy train…They are required to help everyone. And that’s what I am trying to expose.”