James O’Keefe Gets What He Deserves…Just Like ACORN

That will be $100,000, please,

That will be $100,000, please,

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.


Sources: Washington Post, Res Ipsa Loquitur, Brad Blog, Wonkette, Wikipedia

34 thoughts on “James O’Keefe Gets What He Deserves…Just Like ACORN

  1. Question is, were O’Keefe’s unethical actions beneficial to the public, or just the Republican Party? The 100000 is just a parking ticket, probably paid by someone else.

    • Whether they were “beneficial” is irrelevant—they were wrong. As it happened, they focused attention on a group that was improperly managed and inappropriate recipient of Federal funds. That doesn’t make them less wrong. So what’s your point, exactly?

      Your guess about the money is just speculation, but even if true, it still costs O’Keefe—he has to pay taxes on it if its a gift, and that’s 100 grand he can’t use for anything else.

  2. So, in summary, are you suggesting here that it was ultimately ethical to do something unethical to expose an unethical organization?

    • !!!!!

      Did you read what I wrote? Or anything I’ve written? I specifically said the opposite. An unethical act had just consequences—that doesn’t change the ethics of the act. I have railed against consequentialsm on this site for three years. In the comment above yours, I had already written, “Whether they were “beneficial” is irrelevant—they were wrong. As it happened, they focused attention on a group that was improperly managed and inappropriate recipient of Federal funds. That doesn’t make them less wrong.” In the linked post about this from two years ago, I wrote…

      Still, ACORN was done in by falsified evidence from a misrepresentation by an individual of demonstrable unreliability, evidence that would be thrown out of any court and that never should have supported a professional news story. Friedman is also correct that the Times owes its readers a correction, as do hundreds of other news organizations. To this day, it is still written that O’Keefe was disguised as a pimp, and the public is largely unaware that O’Keefe’s videos were edited to make the ACORN staffers look even more foolish and incompetent than they were.
      In the end, however, justice was done. ACORN deserved to be put out of business for its cover-up of the Rathke embezzlement, but got its just desserts through an over-hyped conservative hit job. That’s not right, and it wasn’t ethical, but nobody should feel sorry for the organization. Its conduct showed that it couldn’t be trusted, and it was not worthy of taxpayer support. The right result came about for the wrong reason, because the postman rang twice.

      So with all of this, which is right in front of you, how can you “in summary” manage to conclude exactly the opposite of what I have, in fact, not just “suggested,” but said clearly and repeatedly?

      • Okay, okay. While I have not been privvy to all your writing for the last 3 years, I get it that you are making a distinction between “beneficial” and “ethical.” Perhaps I should have phrased it differently, but I made an assumption (I’ll leave it for others to bring in the “Odd Couple” reference) that “ethical” was always “beneficial” and given your subsequent commentary that ACORN got what they deserved, implies (to me) some approval of the outcome despite the ethical laws violated.
        ***An unethical act had just consequences.***
        Not sure what your “consequentialism” comment meant (inspired another research effort); perhaps this issue reveals relativism, but either way, I am certain you will let me know.
        So, for not hewing to the strict definition of “ethical” and transposing “beneficial,” I believe “mea culpa” is the common phrase used at this juncture.
        Peace out, bro~

        • To clarify—a beneficial result does not make the action achieving it ethical. In “Touch of Evil,” the police chief frames guilty criminals, bad ones. Getting them locked up is a good result, the means is unethical. If torture helped get info that led to bin Laden’s capture, that doesn’t make torture ethical, but the result was beneficial. JFK’s assassination made the Civil Rights Act possible; McKinley’s murder gave us Teddy—both beneficial results from unethical acts.

          The original ACORN post referenced the film and book “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” about two murderers who get acquitted for the murder they commit, but the woman ends up dying in an accident and her male accomplice is wrongly convicted for her murder and getting the punishment he deserved for the wrong crime. That’s ACORN all over.

          Conventionalism equates beneficial with ethical–that is, we retroactively judge conduct according to whether moral luck works in our favor and brings a beneficial result. So if you steal private papers and find proof the the owner is a serial killer, you did good—if not, you’re just a thief.

          Peace, man.

  3. Good analysis,Jack. I wonder if Fox news has covered the settlement. My brother watches Fox News all day and hasn’t heard anything about the settlement Maybe “Fair and balanced” doesn’t include reporting misdeeds of right wing heroes.

  4. You cannot commit an evil act to do good. Catholicism 101. Acorn did deserve to lose tax payer funding. Mr. O’Keefe was wrong to secretly videotape their staffers. I disagree with Lila Rose and the Planned Parenthood tapes too. There is enough evidence for why Planned Parenthood should not receive hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars without resorting to undercover subterfuge. Mr. O’Keefe only had to do a little investigative reporting to uncover the truth. There is no need to pose as pimps, prostitutes, or twelve year old rape victims to expose corruption at these “social service” organizations. Thanks Jack!

    • Thanks for getting it. This is one of the toughest of all ethical principles, and is far from generally understood, not only in the general public, but in the media, the blogosphere and the government.

      • It doesn’t help when pop culture and media in general Romanticize the vigilante. What more base appeal than to elevate a Hero who claims to know right from wrong but doesn’t want to waste time running it through the system (when we must assume for these purposes the system IS corrupt).

  5. Ethics is so important. Our society has always struggled with ethics. It’s surprising since we have a culture rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition. The only time it is acceptable to violate a law is when the law is evil. During WWII, the Nazi government made it illegal to assist Jews. Their treatment of Jews was evil. All people of faith and no faith had an ethical duty to oppose the evil being committed against Jews, even at the cost of their own lives. He who loses his life for Jesus will gain it. Likewise, during slavery and segregation, people aware it was evil had a duty to oppose said injustice.

    I do believe that those for whom truth is veiled are judged by natural law. Awareness of truth, good and evil, AND natural law engenders a greater responsibility. Sometimes ignorance is bliss. God will judge very severely those with full knowledge. According to scripture, whole nations, generations, and cultures will be judged. A culture that deems evil good and good evil is cursed twice by leading innocent souls into sin. Think of the millions that lived during slavery, segregation, etc. and thought it was acceptable because the state condoned it. It’s one of the reasons Roe vs. Wade is so egregious. How many women would carry to term and raise their child or give him up for adoption, but for the state. That’s a whole other discussion. Incidentally, I’m organizing a viewing of, “The Hiding Place” for Lent. The life of Corrie Ten Boom is a worthy example of suffering yielding life for many.

  6. I must confess something, with regret and dread. All these topics in Jack’s blog – all these people whose actions he has noted and commented on so thoughtfully, persuasively, and with wonderful clarity regarding ethics – have begun to affect me cumulatively in a way that I have come to trust is absolutely the opposite of Jack’s intent. I feel that in spite of Jack’s best efforts, I am being won over to the consequentialist side, where the ends justify the means. This latest post on scammers-busting-scammers has all but put me over the edge…

    Here is what I have observed since late 2011, when I began following Jack’s blog: Many people are “succeeding,” being “shakers and movers” – but it seems, the only way they can accomplish their shaking and moving is by deliberately taking the most obviously unethical actions. The ethics heroes’ ranks have not obviously swelled; I have only seen the few and widely scattered, seemingly random heroics noted, celebrated briefly by a small crowd, then quickly ignored and forgotten. In the larger society (and I mean, even beyond national borders, and in multiple cultures), without any sign of abatement, “just win, baby” seems to be the zeitgeist. How does, how can, one win ethically and prevail in a fight for what’s right, when an opponent eschews all similar self-constraints and even leverages ethical people’s ethics to further advantage?

    What to do? Over the past couple of days, I have been pondering how a large enough grass roots movement might get established, to boost and sustain the visibility of Jack’s blog and the comments of his followers. But I am in no position to lead in any capacity in such a movement. As I mentioned earlier, I feel haunted by the effect that studying ethics has had on me. The natural fear in me that follows is that the unintended consequences of ethics education and promotion on a larger scale would include a rise, not a fall, in unethical behavior in the general public. I fear that more persons could become impacted the same way I feel I have been impacted in the time I have been following Jack’s blog. I don’t know what to do about my own brink of “conversion” to treating ethics as just another aspect of existence that is for me to deem situationally relevant and useful, entirely at my personal discretion and purely for convenience. I don’t see a way out of a world where “Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing.”

    • I disagree with your potential conversion to the “If you can’t beat em, join em” philosophy

      If you can keep your head when all about you
      Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
      If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
      But make allowance for their doubting too:
      If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
      Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
      Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
      And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

      If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
      If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
      If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
      And treat those two impostors just the same:.
      If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
      Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
      Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
      And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

      If you can make one heap of all your winnings
      And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
      And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
      And never breathe a word about your loss:
      If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
      To serve your turn long after they are gone,
      And so hold on when there is nothing in you
      Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

      If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
      Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
      If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
      If all men count with you, but none too much:
      If you can fill the unforgiving minute
      With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
      Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
      And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

      Rudyard Kipling

    • The world has never been an ethical place. There have been renaissances and cultural Golden Ages when ethicality has been on an ascendency, and I think we’ve been spoiled by a post WW2 ‘era of good feelings’ (which is one of those times), in which ethical behavior, although not universal was higher than other times in history. That era is waning as the strict cultural norms have been debased by a ‘take it easy man’ attitude and the rise of narcissism and materialism. Don’t give up the good fight.

      • I have my agreements and disagreements about Jim O’Keefe and his means of exposing some extremely corrupt elements of our society that needed exposing. But I would point out that “vigilantism” (if the term can be applied here) is not the equivalent of a lynch mob. It’s a term for when citizens- caught in a lawless and dangerous situation where the institutions of justice have failed and/or are compromised- act to protect their community against the violators. Whether you accept his methods or not, the fact remains that O’Keefe and Giles were instrumental in exposing and bringing down one of the most monstrous and corruptive organizations in our history.

        They also did so at no small personal risk. All they actually did was present the ACORN outlets with a scenario that would have repelled any decent person at once. That few were is significant. That a very many offered their assistance is very significant. What fascinated me about those videos is that anyone but an utterly degraded (and stupid!) person would have accepted those two young people as being whom they claimed with their outrageous story and outfits to match. That may have been the most significant factor of all.

        • We don’t know that they weren’t repelled. That’s not fair. What we know is that they didn’t have the wit or the training to handle the situation properly. We could probably prove 98% of the service workforce similarly unready, if we wanted a world where every question was to be presumed a potential “Borat” stunt.

          • “Borat”? What O’Keefe was presenting was not a movie, but a moral situation. ACORN failed it like crazy. In doing so, they revealed their organization’s motives and mindset for the entire world to see. Sasha Cohen is an R-rated moviemaker- period. Personally, I see little difference between what O’Keefe did and what 60 Minutes has often done in the past; sometimes with truthful results. The way they once brought down (dramatically) a children’s photographer who had been molesting his little subjects harkens to an O’Keefe ploy.

            • Both Cohen and O’Keefe lie to people to get them to embarrass themselves. To the extent that “60 Minutes” did this (they didn’t) it would be unethical too. At least those on “Borat” knew about the camera, making Cohen superior. You can’t spin O’Keefe into a hero, or even make him less than a cur, and if you justify such conduct, then everyone needs to fear every encounter. Better to avoid doing anything at all.

              Every journalist ethics code deplores this tactic, Hidden recordings are not justified by what they find—even law enforcement can’t go “fishing” like this.

        • Vigilantism is very very subjective. Vigilante-ism is definitely incorrect when rational and proper systems exist to right various wrongs. But, when no law exists or irrational or improper systems are all a group of citizens have to look to, then vigilante-ism is the wrong term; if citizens band together in a lawless society to re-establish law and order that is called a revolution (in the style of the American revolution- not the emotion driven blood bath revolutions of the 20th century).

          “…Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness….”

          Of course it is analogous to any industry: if the industry leaders no longer apply ethical industry conventions, the industry grass-roots has to correct things. Unfortunately it doesn’t work if the industry grass-roots doesn’t apply ethical conventions to achieve that ‘revolution’.

  7. Jack: All O’Keefe did was to present a scenario that should have been rejected and condemned after his first two sentences. Instead, it was embraced. They condemned themselves with their own words, not with O’Keefe’s. Had he done nothing, these cretins would still be at their despicable work. In a moment of “journalistic judo”, he merely turned their own depravity back on themselves. Law enforcement can’t (legally) do such things, it’s true. That’s why we have a 1st Amendment. In my own experience, I’ve often found it productive just to let the other guy rant and expose his true colors to listeners without further comment. I just didn’t record the conversation for posterity. O’Keefe did. That, apparently, is the sole true crux of contention.

    • He lied. It was a scam. It was neither fair journalism not legitimate law enforcement investigation. It proved no wrongdoing, and would almost certainly have been kicked out as entrapment if a police department did it. It was also selectively applied, so it wasn’t even valid research. For all we know, most privately run social services and community groups have employees that would behave exactly the same. For all we know, the problem has nothing to do with ACORN, and is indicative of community attitudes, socio-economic trends, and education.

      O’Keefe’s stunt can’t be justified, not by its results, not by its intent, not by its design, not be its methods.

      • Jack: I think that ACORN’s propensities of corruption were already an open secret before O’Keefe undertook his project. Again: He just presented them with a scenario and let them take it from there. And did they ever!

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