James O’Keefe is a darling of the right who has executed, with varying levels of success, deceptive, unethical and sometimes illegal vigilante ‘stings’ (using hidden cameras) to prove various conservative targets like NPR and Planned Parenthood are secretly as bad as the right thinks they are. Everything about this is wrong, of course, beginning with his methods, which would be unethical journalism if he were a journalist (rather than a partisan hit man), and ending with his targets, which, if O’Keefe had integrity, would include both right and left. That wouldn’t be good for business, though.
O’Keefe’s biggest hit was on ACORN, the progressive, many-armed community-organizing non-profit that was operating on considerable taxpayer largesse. In 2009, O’Keefe and a female colleague dressed as a young prostitute secretly videotaped themselves seeking help from several ACORN offices, including those in Brooklyn, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., San Diego ( actually National City), and San Bernardino. O’Keefe spun various versions of a tale about a cruel pimp importing underage girls to stock his inventory, and and O’Keefe’s plan to house them in secret and safety, but the sham’s goal always was to gull ACORN employees into giving advice regarding how to hide illegal activities and how to get financial assistance for the prostitutes. In San Bernardino, an ACORN employee told O’Keefe and the woman that the girls could classify their underage brothel as a “group home” to avoid detection, or maybe they should open a massage parlor. The Brooklyn office gave advice to the “prostitute” about how to hide her money, including opening multiple bank accounts. D.C.’s ACORN staffer provided advice on how to file tax returns without revealing her true trade. The Baltimore ACORN employee opined, “Well then, you know what, you can always claim them as dependents” and suggested, “You are gonna use three of them; they are gonna be under 16, so you is eligible to get child tax credit and additional child tax credit.” When O’Keefe asked, as the helpful friend of the girls,”What if they are going to be making money because they are performing tricks too?”, the ACORN employee replied, “But if they making money and they are underage, then you shouldn’t be letting anybody know anyway.”
In National City, near San Diego, however, O’Keefe’s luck ran out. An ACORN employee named Juan Carlos Vera offered some chance of aid, then contacted authorities soon after the couple had left. After the footage of Vera’s conversation with the posing pair was included with the scenes in the other offices in a heavily edited video exclusive on the Breitbart website, Vera was fired. He subsequently sued O’Keefe, citing The California Invasion of Privacy Act, which makes secretly recording someone’s voice or image a crime. Vera sought damages for the consequences of O’Keefe’s violation to him and his family. O’Keefe, after trying various defenses (like claiming he is a journalist, and had First Amendment immunity), agreed to pay a $100,000 settlement. In the signed document, he stated that he “regrets any pain suffered by Mr. Vera or his family.”
In a word, good. O’Keefe had this coming, and if it teaches him that tricking people into saying things that will embarrass them and then publicizing the statements for partisan gain is not a fair, honest, or smart thing to do, we are all a bit safer. Both ends of the press spectrum, however, have covered the story deceptively. The conservative media and blogs appear reluctant to report the story at all, as it tarnishes both their hero and what they view as a legitimate take-down of a group that needed taking down. On the other side, the O’Keefe-loathing, ACORN-mourning left, the story is being deceptively told, as if the National City sting was the only sting, or implying that the settlement proves that ACORN was unjustly felled by criminal acts. (See, for example, here, here, here, and here. MSNBC, of course…)
ACORN, as I have explained before, was an astonishingly amateurish and atrociously operated non-profit that deserved to have its Congressional funding pulled. The fact that a series of stings that were unethical and never should have taken place triggered the right result through scrutiny that should have been ongoing anyway doesn’t change this reality. The responses of the various staffers to O’Keefe’s lies may not have been criminal, but they exposed a staff that had inadequate training and was unqualified for the range of issues they were supposed to be able to handle. One doesn’t even have to consider that, however..only this: it is unchallenged that ACORN’s treasurer embezzled millions of dollars, and the organization not only covered it up, it kept the crook in his position as Treasurer while not informing donors or the government about he had done. Such conduct mandates the death sentence for any non-profit organization, and it would be outrageous for Congress to trust any group, no matter what its accomplishments or virtues, with a single penny of federal funds.
O’Keefe received the consequences his unethical conduct earned, but so did ACORN. Anyone who reports the story without making this clear is engaged in deception and spin.