Conservative media fixture James O’Keefe rose to "stardom" in 2009 after posting an undercover video supposedly showing employees of the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) agreeing to help him smuggle underage prostitutes into the US. The video circulated widely in the conservative blogosphere, where activists saw the clip as "proof" that ACORN, a major force in community organizing and voter registration drives, was corrupt. O’Keefe’s sting destroyed ACORN’s reputation and the employee, Juan Carlos Vera, was fired.
Only later did it come to light that Vera called the police to report O’Keefe after he left.
By filming Vera, O’Keefe violated a state law against secret recordings of an individual’s voice and image. Though he was granted immunity from criminal prosecution after turning over the raw videos to the California attorney general’s office, Vera and other ACORN employees sued O’Keefe privately over the illegal recording.
Four years after the video went viral, O’Keefe agreed to pay a $100,000 settlement to Vera. (James O'Keefe Pays $100,000 To ACORN Employee He Smeared-Conservative Media Yawns) O'Keefe's partner, Hannah Giles, paid a separate $50,000 settlement to Vera for her part in the scam. In the settlement, O’Keefe says that before the video was shown on TV or posted on the Web, he was unaware that Vera had called the police to report O’Keefe and Giles for proposing an illegal act.
Many of O’Keefe’s videos have been exposed as either complete lies or deceptively edited:
- In his ACORN pimp "sting", O’Keefe deceptively edited in the famous pimp costume later (and wore it during TV interviews), though he actually wore a suit and tie at the ACORN office.
- In 2010, O'Keefe and his friends were arrested for and convicted of trying to bug a Senator’s phone while impersonating telephone company employees. (James O'Keefe and friends plead guilty in Mary Landrieu office caper)
- Also in 2010, O'Keefe attempted to set up a scam in which he would "seduce" and sexually harass a CNN reporter. One of his colleagues was so disgusted by his plan that they warned the reporter, who did not go. (James O’Keefe’s planned sexual harassment “prank” goes awry)
- In 2012, O’Keefe’s attempt to expose voter fraud by non-citizens actually featured US citizens. (FACT CHECK: ‘Non-Citizen’ Voter In James O’Keefe’s Voter Fraud Video Is Actually A Citizen)
- In March 2016, while attempting to set up a scam targetting the Open Society Foundation, O'Keefe left a voice mail message claiming to be "Victor Kesh" from "a foundation". After leaving his ambiguous message (which raised red flags for it's oddness), O'Keefe forgot to hang up before having a discussion with his accomplices detailing their entire plan. (Detailed story in The New Yorker: Sting of Myself)
- Also in November 2016, O'Keefe tweeted repeatedly about "tailing" busses carrying people to their polling locations, claiming it was voter fraud. In reality, O'Keefe was committing voter intimidation. (James O’Keefe films himself committing voter intimidation by stalking a church van bringing people to polls)
O’Keefe’s settlement with Vera was yet another blow to the credibility of "conservative media". Breitbart.com made a stir by accusing now-confirmed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel of taking money from a shadowy organization with the outlandish name “Friends of Hamas” — a group that turned out to be fictional. Soon after, allegations by the Daily Caller that Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) had hired a prostitute turned out to be entirely fabricated. The fake scandal had also been shopped around to the New York Post and the Star-Ledger Time, but neither could find any evidence to publish the story. Larger conservative media outlets like the Drudge Report, however, enthusiastically amplified these stories with little or no scrutiny.
Despite the payment, O’Keefe is refusing to back down. In a statement, he absolves himself of any liability, saying, “The settlement admits no liability and there is no benefit from extending this ridiculous lawsuit…Sadly, this is the cost of exposing the truth.”
A report released by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service on December 22nd, 2009 stated that two filmmakers likely broke the law when they conducted a widely publicized "sting" against the group. The report on the community group ACORN also found no misuse of its federal funds over the past five years and no attempts at improper voting following its 2008 voter registration drive. The report raises questions about the Constitutionality of a government wide funding ban. (CRS report: ACORN didn't break law)
"No instances were identified in which ACORN violated the terms of federal funding in the last five years," a press release posted on the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on the Judiciary website quoted the CRS report. It also notes: "There were no instances of individuals who were allegedly registered to vote improperly by ACORN or its employees and who were reported attempting to vote at the polls."
Earlier in December 2009 an independent report by former Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger examining the undercover videos filmed in offices of the national anti-poverty group ACORN states the employees portrayed in the videos did not engage in any illegal activity, but the filmmakers, who refused to be interviewed during the investigation, likely did.
ACORN, an anti-poverty group, came under attack from Republicans in recent years after it helped millions of mostly minority and low-income citizens apply to register to vote. ACORN has helped families prepare 150,000 free tax returns and obtain $190 million in tax refunds in the last five years and worked for decades to promote neighborhood safety and homeownership.