James Gill: O’Keefe-Letten brouhaha

If James O’Keefe’s book runs to another edition, a quote from Jim Letten would make a perfect blurb.

“You’re a nasty little cowardly spud,” for instance, would really catch the eye.

The book, “Breakthrough: Our Guerilla War to Expose Fraud and Save Democracy,” would fly off the shelves.

That quote, and other pleasantries that escaped Letten’s lips during the encounter that O’Keefe filmed on the Tulane campus, would be much more of a come-on than the book’s somewhat immodest title.

O’Keefe is, however, quite an authority on fraud, that being a major part of the modus operandi he uses to advance his right-wing agenda. When Letten was U.S. Attorney in 2009, O’Keefe was caught posing as a repair man to tamper with the phones in U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office and wound up pleading guilty in federal court.

His most-celebrated coup was to bring down ACORN with surreptitious footage cut and spliced to create a largely false impression of misconduct by its employees.

There does not appear to have been any need for editing this time, however. Letten made an ass of himself not just because it is widely regarded as undignified for an assistant law-school dean to scream abuse at considerable length in public, but because he advanced cockamanie legal theories.

Tulane, having hired Letten on the strength of his decades as a prosecutor, presumably figured it was getting an expert on criminal law. Watch Letten on the film alleging crimes that are purely imaginary, and you have to conclude he took Tulane for a ride.

O’Keefe was entirely within his rights, but campus police detained him and ran him off campus at the end of Letten’s tirade. For a publicity-seeking author, no more satisfactory outcome could be devised.

O’Keefe, Letten suggests, is a “snail,” a “horse’s ass,” and “scum,” allegations that are impossible to confirm or deny. But “cowardly spud” is a precise aspersion, and the answer to the question of whether it is fair is yes and no. If O’Keefe were a coward, he would hardly make a career of bearding such burly hotheads as Letten. The spud charge must stick, however, although there are politer ways of referring to Hibernian ancestry.

O’Keefe came here to present Letten with a copy of his book, so provocation was the plan from the start. O’Keefe, having aired several complaints about the way his phone caper case was handled, certainly didn’t expect Letten to say thanks and ask him to sign the book. Letten was out when O’Keefe and film crew showed up at his house, but his wife was there to decline the offer. So O’Keefe found Letten outside the Tulane law school.

The book was in Letten’s hand for a split second before he tossed it back with an assurance that he would never read anything written by O’Keefe. Good call. He would be better advised to curl up with a law book.

Letten yelled that O’Keefe’s crime included “harassing a former U.S. attorney,” which no statute proscribes, and trespass, of which he was clearly not guilty, since the law allows the public access to the sidewalks and common areas of university campuses. Tulane is entitled to ban undesirables, as it has since done to O’Keefe, but at the time the film was shot no order was in place. He had as much right to be there as Letten, and, indeed, expressed his views in a much more measured fashion. When the cops told O’Keefe he was under arrest, the proper response from any law-school dean within earshot would have been to give them a brief lesson on the First Amendment.

They are not the only ones who find American freedoms inconvenient. Tulane, in announcing that O’Keefe is now banned from the campus, could not cite any offense other than “unannounced and uninvited visits.” He was arrested for a lapse of etiquette.

Letten is inclined to go overboard too. “You terrorized my wife,” he cried, although the film of O’Keefe’s attempt to drop off the book at his house shows the mildest of manners. The Tulane announcement says that when O’Keefe and his crew came looking for Letten, they were “intimidating and harassing to both his wife and staff.”

They must be of a nervous disposition, because, as Letten explains on the film, O’Keefe and all his crew are “hobbits.” That might attract a few readers too.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.