James O’Keefe, the self-styled Gonzo journalist and conservative provocateur who was busted for stealing his way into U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in 2010, returned to New Orleans last week with an idea to settle a beef with former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten.
It may not have worked out quite the way he hoped. O’Keefe found himself on the receiving end of a heaping of vitriol from the former prosecutor after going to Letten’s house with a video crew and confronting Letten’s wife.
In various undercover video exposé s, O’Keefe has taken aim at purported hypocrisy on the left, most famously when he posed as a pimp to publicly kneecap the liberal housing activist group ACORN.
He came to town last week and confronted Letten about a criminal case that resulted in guilty pleas from O’Keefe and three others over a separate journalistic escapade at the Hale Boggs federal complex three years ago, according to a report filed by Jefferson Parish deputies.
The group had posed as a telephone crew to investigate complaints that the Democratic senator’s staff ignored constituent calls about health care reform. O’Keefe and the others ended up pleading guilty to entering United States property under false pretenses, a misdemeanor.
On his most recent visit to New Orleans, O’Keefe was among a group of at least six people, armed with video equipment, who showed up Wednesday at Letten’s Old Metairie house.
O’Keefe, 29, was looking for Letten, who wasn’t home. But Letten’s wife, JoAnn, was. O’Keefe pressed his case with her, saying he needed to speak with the man that prosecuted him “for a crime that he ‘did not commit,’ ” according to the police report. He also offered her a copy of his book — a memoir titled “Breakthrough: Our Guerrilla War to Expose Fraud and Save Democracy” — to give to her husband. She told sheriff deputies she refused to take it and noticed a camera pointed toward her from inside a vehicle as she shut the door.
After leaving the Letten home, O’Keefe and at least five others then moved on to Tulane University, Letten’s alma mater, where Letten now serves as assistant dean for experiential learning at the law school, after resigning as U.S. attorney in December following an online posting scandal that involved two of his top lieutenants.
Letten, a Republican, had recused himself from the Landrieu case because the father of one of the charged men was a federal prosecutor whom Letten knew. But O’Keefe was intent on confronting the former U.S. attorney anyway, tracking him down on the Tulane campus and accusing him of “ruining my life,” a source with knowledge of the incident said.
By now, Letten was aware of O’Keefe’s visit to his home. Furious, he unleashed a loud verbal tirade on O’Keefe. He also alerted various law enforcement authorities, including the FBI and the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office.
According to a Tulane police report, O’Keefe and the others were “issued restricted presence letters” — basically an order to clear off — and escorted off campus. No arrests were made.
Letten declined to comment on the incidents.
The report lists California addresses for three members of the group, a Texas address for another and a Vermont address for the fifth. O’Keefe lives in Westwood, N.J.
Confined mainly to the Garden State over the course of a three-year probation period that ended in late May, O’Keefe has taken on the role of political prisoner. On his web site, www.projectveritas.com, he wrote of having “endured 1,210 days of unjust government surveillance and oppression.”
So far, video of the altercation has not surfaced on O’Keefe’s website or elsewhere online. O’Keefe responded by email late Monday evening to a query about the incident. He did not answer questions about why he approached Letten, but disputed the idea that he committed a crime in gaining access to Landrieu’s office. O’Keefe said he showed his I.D. upon entering the courthouse and “was ultimately charged with a crime I did not commit.”
He said he aimed to highlight the case Tuesday on former Fox commentator Glenn Beck’s cable and Internet streaming network TheBlaze.
O’Keefe could face later prosecution for the stunt, although it’s unclear whether it amounted to a threat against Letten or his wife.
Attacks or threats against current or former judges or law enforcement officers can carry stiff criminal sanctions. One federal statute bars “influencing, impeding or retaliating against a Federal official by threatening or injuring a family member.”
The law includes former officials and their immediate family members in that group, with prison sentences as high as a year for a simple assault, attempt or threat, and far higher for physical attacks.
Former U.S. Attorney Harry Rosenberg pointed to a 2009 report by the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General that found a significant rise in threats and “inappropriate communication” to federal judges or federal prosecutors.
The study found that such incidents more than doubled in five years, from 592 in 2003 to 1,278 in 2008. It did not seek to explain why.
A spokeswoman for the FBI said the bureau had no comment on the incident.