James O’Keefe, the self-styled guerilla investigative journalist celebrated for his video on ACORN and arrested last month in New Orleans in an attempted expose of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, got a rock star welcome at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday.
O’Keefe, 25, wasn’t scheduled to do any official events at CPAC, as the conference is known, but he attracted plenty of attention as he waded through the lobby of the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, where the conference is taking place, posing for pictures with admiring fans who wished him well in his pending court case.
O’Keefe became a instant conservative celebrity last year when he and a partner, Hannah Giles, released secretly recorded videos of them posing as a pimp and prostitute while soliciting advice from employees of ACORN, the liberal community organizing group, on how to set up a brothel.
But last month, after he and two other men entered Landrieu’s New Orleans district office pretending to be telephone repairmen, while a fourth man waited outside, they were arrested by the U.S. Marshals Service and charged with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony, charges that carry maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and $250,000 in fines.
According to an FBI affidavit, two of the men attempted to manipulate telephones and accessed the telephone closet, while O’Keefe filmed them on his cell phone camera.
Their supporters say their goal was to show that staffers for Landrieu, who became a target of conservative scorn for voting for the Senate healthcare overhaul after being promised additional Medicaid funding for her state, was ignoring constituent phone calls.
In a short interview in a hotel hallway, O’Keefe told POLITICO he had another investigative video “ready to go,” though he wouldn’t reveal the topic or the timing. “I’m always ready to go,” he said.
The ACORN videos, which resulted in a Congressional vote to stop federal funding for the group before a federal judge ordered thefunding restored, will be recognized Friday evening with an award from XPAC, the acronym for “Xtremely Active Political Conservatives,” which is holding its own events at the conference.
O’Keefe – who had to get permission from his parole office to attend CPAC – told POLITICO he wasn’t sure if the terms of his probation would allow him to remain in Washington to accept the award or would require him to return to his parents’ home in New Jersey.
O’Keefe flashed his parole papers from the federal district court hearing his case – as did Joe Basel, 24, one of the three other activists arrested with him in New Orleans – as conference-goers walked by gawking and offering encouragement.
“Good job, bud,” said one elderly man, who shook O’Keefe’s hand. “Hang in there.”
“It’s like (the attendees) saw Chuck Norris,” said Basel, who confessed fewer CPACers recognized him. “These aren’t my people,” he explained.
O’Keefe blasted mainstream media outlets for falsely reporting that he and his crew had been arrested for attempting to wiretap the phones in Landrieu’s district office, and he boasted that The Washington Post had to run two corrections for mischaracterizing the case.
“They hate me because I’m effective,” he said. He briefly defended his undercover tactics, asserting reporters can learn more if they didn’t identify themselves as such, and urging this POLITICO reporter to try that approach, before begging off a longer, more formal interview.
O’Keefe explained that he intends to limit his media exposure to heighten anticipation for his forthcoming video. “I’m not a pundit,” he said, before retreating into an elevator with Giles, Basel and a third man.
Andrew Breitbart, whose Big Government website posted O’Keefe’s ACORN videos, predicted that O’Keefe, Basel and their colleagues would be absolved in the New Orleans case and that when the truth comes out it would leave their critics “with egg on their face.”
He alleged that left-leaning media personalities including MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who made a brief appearance at CPAC, tried to vilify O’Keefe and his cohorts, but said attacks will only make them more effective.
“When they do that to a Joe Basel or a Hannah Giles, or a James O’Keefe, it only weaponizes them,” Breitbart told POLITICO. “And that’s the reason they have a smile on their face - they know that they now have a platform. They’re not shying away from their notoriety here,” he said, as woman approached him to thank him for “sticking up for James.”
Breitbart said he continues to work with O’Keefe and intends to post his next video project, but said he only met Basel and a third person who was arrested in New Orleans, 24-year-old Stan Dai, at a Wednesday night party hosted by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks PAC.
“I love meeting troublemakers,” Breitbart said, adding he was impressed by Basel and Dai, and intends to use CPAC to scout for more young people interested in activist journalism.
“My business model is I want to be a talent scout. I want to be an American idol for weaponized freedom fighters,” said Breitbart. “And that’s one of the reasons I love coming here.”