On Jan. 25, James O'Keefe and three other conservative activists were arrested after a weird incident in which they entered Sen. Mary Landrieu's (D-La.) office in New Orleans dressed as telephone repairmen and attempted to gain access to the closet where the phone system was serviced. They were charged with "entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony," according to an FBI press release.
There's been a lot of speculation about the motives of O'Keefe, who led an attempted sting of ACORN offices last fall that was widely publicized and helped spur Congress to drop millions in funding for the voter registration and lower income charity. Messing with the telephones in a federal government official's office is a serious felony, whether O'Keefe and his associates were planning to bug the phones, vandalize them or achieve some other purpose. If they are convicted, the four men face up to 10 years in prison and a fine of $250,000.
On a web site published by Andrew Breitbart, who has O'Keefe on his payroll but denies involvement in the Landrieu incident, O'Keefe issued a statement after the arrest claiming that "[n]o one tried to wiretap or bug Senator Landrieu's office. Nor did we try to cut or shut down her phone lines."
This statement doesn't explain why some of them were dressed as repairmen and tried to access the telephone closet, as the FBI alleges.
An article that O'Keefe wrote in November 2008 for the online conservative magazine New Guard may shed some light on his actions. In the article, O'Keefe describes a past sting project where he and a young anti-abortion activist named Lila Rose contacted Planned Parenthood offices seeking to donate money to fund abortions and reduce the number of black babies in the United States.
We were able to donate money to the organization for the explicit purpose of reducing the number of black babies born in the United States -- in line with the intentions of Planned Parenthood's founder, Margaret Sanger.
We carefully chose a dozen or so "one party consent" states, where it is legal to audio record someone without their consent. Not a single Planned Parenthood employee we spoke to was disinterested in the prospect of a donation for our stated purposes.
As he did later at ACORN offices, O'Keefe targeted low-level employees of liberal leaning groups and tried to get them to say something damning while he was taping the interactions. Although he says that the Planned Parenthood taping was legal, he also writes this in the article:
Leaders taking on power structures need to be raw, confident, fearless and impermeable. Lila received a letter threatening to prosecute the group for violating wiretapping laws, but it did not stop her from continuing the investigation. After the investigation aired nationally on Fox News, Planned Parenthood could no longer press charges, as Lila would appear the victim.
O'Keefe believed that even if he and Rose were putting themselves in legal jeopardy, the fear of bad publicity would make it impossible for charges to be pressed against them.
I don't know what O'Keefe and his fake telephone repairmen were planning to do at Landrieu's office, but he seems to believe that when you break laws in pursuit of a media stunt, the coverage will shield you from prosecution. That hasn't worked out for him this time around.