NEW ORLEANS—Before a pimp outfit made him famous and a hidden camera in a senator's office made him infamous, James O'Keefe honed his undercover videomaking skills with a trip to Capitol Hill and a bank prank.
The gonzo style that inspired O'Keefe to dress up like a pimp to embarrass the community organizing group ACORN with a hidden-camera video also can be seen in "Bailout Prize Patrol," a YouTube video O'Keefe made nearly a year earlier.
Bogus photo-ops. Phony oversized checks. Even a chicken suit. O'Keefe said he was making a "comedic farce mockumentary" when a police officer questioned the 25-year-old conservative about one of the stunts depicted in "Bailout Prize Patrol."
However, the manager of a New Jersey bank branch stopped laughing when she realized O'Keefe and four others had duped her into posing for a photograph with a check meant to represent federal bank bailout money.
A police investigation didn't result in criminal charges - but O'Keefe wasn't as fortunate during last month's ill-fated trip to Louisiana.
After visiting Sen. Mary Landrieu's office at a federal building in New Orleans, O'Keefe and three others were arrested Jan. 25 on charges of entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony. The four are accused of trying to tamper with the Louisiana Democrat's phones, which O'Keefe has denied.
O'Keefe has said he was investigating complaints that constituents calling Landrieu's office couldn't get through to criticize her support of a health care reform bill. He called the episode a "huge misunderstanding" and defended his tactics, saying investigative reporters have been using hidden cameras for years.
"I really did not think we broke any laws," O'Keefe said during an interview Monday on Sean Hannity's Fox News show.
In "Bailout Prize Patrol," which was posted on the Web in February 2009, O'Keefe's tactics mirror those he used in Landrieu's office. It shows the video's makers meeting with Sen. Olympia Snowe last year in her Capitol Hill office and asking the Maine Republican to sign an oversized check payable to Amtrak worth $1 billion.
"It's for the $1 billion for the new stimulus package, on behalf of the taxpayers," an off-camera voice told Snowe.
"I'm a good supporter of Amtrak," Snowe responded.
Snowe met with the videomakers believing they were students from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and the senator didn't know she was being taped, said John Gentzel, Snowe's spokesman.
No one in Snowe's office ever complained about the visit. However, federal authorities say O'Keefe's actions at Landrieu's office crossed a line, regardless of his motives.
An FBI agent's account of the incident says O'Keefe used his cell phone to try to capture video of two other men who posed as telephone repairmen and asked to see the phones at Landrieu's office. One of the fake repairmen grabbed a phone handset to "manipulate" it, the agent wrote.
One of the phony repairmen also had a tiny camera hidden in his helmet.
Also arrested were Robert Flanagan of New Orleans, Joseph Basel of Minnesota and Stan Dai of the Washington, D.C., area, all 24.
O'Keefe makes a noteworthy appearance on camera in "Bailout Prize Patrol," when he and others present a phony check to the manager of a Valley National Bank branch in Wayne Township, N.J. The bank borrowed about $300 million from the Treasury Department last year.
The manager told police that O'Keefe and four others entered the bank on Feb. 2, 2009, identified themselves as students from nearby William Paterson University and asked her to pose with an oversized check for a $5,000 donation to an animal shelter.
Outside the bank, they handed her a different check "for $300 million from the taxpayers of the United States to Valley National Bank," according to a police report. The video shows somebody dressed in a chicken suit snatch the check and run away.
"Don't like your nest egg being taken away?" a voiceover on the video asks.
One of O'Keefe's cohorts on the video says their cameraman, identified in the police report as 22-year-old Roger C. Masi, was detained by police after the bank complained. But the investigation didn't result in any criminal charges.
"James (O'Keefe) acknowledged that he hired the four individuals to make a 'comedic farce mockumentary' on the bank bailouts," the police report states. "James denied deceiving the manager."
"Bailout Prize Patrol" also shows young men throwing fake money at Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and an exchange with Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
"Rudeness won't get you anywhere, guys," Schumer said.
"Neither will you stealing the taxpayers' money, sir," an off-camera voice responds.