Four charged in phone scheme at Sen. Landrieu’s office

A conservative activist who posed as a pimp to target a community-organizing group with ties to President Obama was among four men arrested for allegedly trying to interfere with a Democratic senator’s office telephones.

Federal officials have not yet said whether the men were successful, or if their goal was political espionage. Still, the operation’s style recalled the famous Watergate break-in, which ballooned into a scandal that consumed Richard Nixon‘s presidency and led to his resignation.

Activist James O’Keefe, 25, was already in the New Orleans office of Sen. Mary Landrieu on Monday when two of the accused showed up claiming to be telephone repairmen, U.S. Attorney Jim Letten’s office said Tuesday. Letten says O’Keefe videoed them with his cellphone.

The two men, Robert Flanagan and Joseph Basel, both 24, asked the reception for and received access to the main phone at the desk, and later asked for access to a phone closet, Letten’s office said. The men were directed to another office in the building, where they are again accused of misrepresenting themselves as telephone repairmen.

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Federal agents arrested them later. A fourth man, Stan Dai, 24, was also arrested, but Letten’s office said only that he assisted the others in planning, coordinating and preparing the operation.

The men were later released, and O’Keefe said “veritas,” the Latin word for truth, as he left the jail.

Federal officials did not say why the men wanted to interfere with Landrieu’s phones. Landrieu, a moderate Democrat, declined comment. She has been in the news recently because she negotiated an increase for her state’s funds for Medicaid, the U.S. government’s health care program for the poor, before announcing her support for Senate health care legislation.

A magistrate set bond at $10,000 each after they made their initial court appearances.

None of the defendants commented on the allegations in court.

“It was poor judgment,” Robert Flanagan’s lawyer, Garrison Jordan, said in a brief interview outside the courthouse. “I don’t think there was any intent or motive to commit a crime.”

Michael McHale, chairman of the Louisiana Democratic Party, referred to the episode as “Louisiana Watergate” in a statement Tuesday and urged authorities to prosecute “any wrongdoers to the fullest extent of the law.”

O’Keefe was behind a series of undercover videos that caused major problems last fall for the community-organizing group ACORN— the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now — whose Democratic leanings and political work have made it a target of Republicans

Using a hidden camera, O’Keefe, posing as a pimp and accompanied by a young woman posing as a prostitute, shot videos in ACORN offices where staffers appeared to offer illegal tax advice and to support the misuse of public funds and illegal trafficking in children.

O’Keefe has been sued in Pennsylvania and Maryland based on the ACORN videos; he does not have an attorney of record in either case and attempts Tuesday to locate a lawyer who might represent him were not successful.

An internal investigation eventually concluded there was no criminal conduct on the part of employees. Still, the videos prompted massive political criticism of the group and its efforts, and caused Congress to block previously approved funds from going to ACORN.

Obama, a former community organizer and a lawyer, represented the group in 1995 in a lawsuit.

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