- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 28, 2010

NEW ORLEANS | Four men accused of trying to tamper with a Democratic U.S. senator’s office phones shared a common experience as young ideologues writing for conservative publications.

It’s not yet clear whether the plan was a prank intended to be captured on camera or a more serious attempt at political espionage, as claimed by state Democrats who dubbed it “Louisiana Watergate.”

Federal authorities said two of the men posed as telephone workers with hard hats, tool belts and fluorescent vests and walked into Sen. Mary L. Landrieu’s office in a New Orleans federal building Monday. A federal law enforcement official said Wednesday one of the hard hats was rigged with a tiny camera. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.

The most well-known suspect is James O’Keefe, 25, who posed as a pimp for a hidden-camera expose that damaged the reputation of the liberal community-organizing group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and made him a conservative darling.

Mr. O’Keefe and suspect Joseph Basel, 24, formed their own conservative publications on their college campuses. A third suspect, Stan Dai, 24, was editor of his university’s conservative paper and directed a program aimed at getting college students interested in the intelligence field after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.

The fourth suspect, Robert Flanagan, 24, wrote for the New Orleans-based conservative Pelican Institute and had recently criticized Mrs. Landrieu for voting in favor of health care legislation after securing a Medicaid provision helpful to her state. Medicaid is the government’s health care program for the poor.

Mr. O’Keefe was a featured speaker at a Pelican Institute luncheon days before his arrest, though institute president Kevin Kane said Wednesday that he had no idea what happened at Mrs. Landrieu’s office or what the four were doing there. Mr. Flanagan, son of the acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, was a contract worker for the institute, mostly writing for its blog.

“Robert has done terrific work and I think very highly of him, and am very sorry to see him in this difficult situation,” Mr. Kane said.

The operation’s style recalled the famous 1972 Watergate break-in at the Democratic Party’s national headquarters, which ballooned into a scandal that consumed Richard Nixon’s presidency and led to his resignation.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan said Republicans once praised Mr. O’Keefe as an American hero, “yet today, in light of these deplorable and illegal attacks on the office of a United States senator by their champion, Republicans have not offered a single iota of disgust, a whisper of indignation or even a hint of outrage.”

In October, Republican Rep. Pete Olson sponsored a resolution praising Mr. O’Keefe and the woman who posed as a prostitute, Hannah Giles, for their investigation of “fraudulent and illegal practices and misuse of taxpayer dollars” by ACORN. Thirty-one Republican lawmakers signed on as co-sponsors.

In response to the arrests, Mr. Olson said that “if recent events conclude that any laws were broken in the incident in Sen. Landrieu’s office - that is not something I condone.”

All four were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

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