Before a pimp outfit made him famous and ahidden camera in a senator's office made him infamous, JamesO'Keefe honed his undercover videomaking skills with a trip toCapitol Hill and a bank prank.
The gonzo style that inspired O'Keefe to dress up like a pimp toembarrass the community organizing group ACORN with a hidden-cameravideo also can be seen in "Bailout Prize Patrol," a YouTube videoO'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 apolice officer questioned the 25-year-old conservative about one ofthe stunts depicted in "Bailout Prize Patrol."
However, the manager of a New Jersey bank branch stoppedlaughing when she realized O'Keefe and four others had duped herinto posing for a photograph with a check meant to representfederal bank bailout money.
A police investigation didn't result in criminal charges - butO'Keefe wasn't as fortunate during last month's ill-fated trip toLouisiana.
After visiting Sen. Mary Landrieu's office at a federal buildingin New Orleans, O'Keefe and three others were arrested Jan. 25 oncharges of entering federal property under false pretenses for thepurpose of committing a felony. The four are accused of trying totamper with the Louisiana Democrat's phones, which O'Keefe hasdenied.
O'Keefe has said he was investigating complaints thatconstituents calling Landrieu's office couldn't get through tocriticize her support of a health care reform bill. He called theepisode a "huge misunderstanding" and defended his tactics,saying investigative reporters have been using hidden cameras foryears.
"I really did not think we broke any laws," O'Keefe saidduring an interview Monday on Sean Hannity's Fox News show.
In "Bailout Prize Patrol," which was posted on the Web inFebruary 2009, O'Keefe's tactics mirror those he used in Landrieu'soffice. It shows the video's makers meeting with Sen. Olympia Snowelast year in her Capitol Hill office and asking the MaineRepublican to sign an oversized check payable to Amtrak worth $1billion.
"It's for the $1 billion for the new stimulus package, onbehalf 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 fromBates College in Lewiston, Maine, and the senator didn't know shewas 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'soffice crossed a line, regardless of his motives.
An FBI agent's account of the incident says O'Keefe used hiscell phone to try to capture video of two other men who posed astelephone repairmen and asked to see the phones at Landrieu'soffice. 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 hishelmet.
Also arrested were Robert Flanagan of New Orleans, Joseph Baselof Minnesota and Stan Dai of the Washington, D.C., area, all 24.
O'Keefe makes a noteworthy appearance on camera in "BailoutPrize Patrol," when he and others present a phony check to themanager of a Valley National Bank branch in Wayne Township, N.J.The bank borrowed about $300 million from the Treasury Departmentlast year.
The manager told police that O'Keefe and four others entered thebank on Feb. 2, 2009, identified themselves as students from nearbyWilliam Paterson University and asked her to pose with an oversizedcheck for a $5,000 donation to an animal shelter.
Outside the bank, they handed her a different check "for $300million from the taxpayers of the United States to Valley NationalBank," according to a police report. The video shows somebodydressed in a chicken suit snatch the check and run away.
"Don't like your nest egg being taken away?" a voiceover onthe 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, wasdetained by police after the bank complained. But the investigationdidn't result in any criminal charges.
"James (O'Keefe) acknowledged that he hired the fourindividuals to make a 'comedic farce mockumentary' on the bankbailouts," the police report states. "James denied deceiving themanager."
"Bailout Prize Patrol" also shows young men throwing fakemoney 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," anoff-camera voice responds.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun