Tampering with phones: Political prank or espionage?

The Associated Press • January 28, 2010

NEW ORLEANS — Was it an attempt at political espionage? Or just a third-rate prank? And was anyone else involved?

In what some Democrats are calling the “Louisiana Watergate,” four young conservative activists — one of them a known political prankster — were arrested this week and accused of trying to tamper with the telephones in Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office.

But two days after their arrest, neither the FBI nor federal prosecutors would say what the defendants were up to or whether they were part of some larger conspiracy.

Authorities said two of the defendants posed as telephone repairmen in hard hats, fluorescent vests and tool belts and asked to see the phones at Landrieu’s office; one of them had a tiny camera in his helmet. A third man is alleged to have waited outside in a car with a listening device to pick up transmissions. The fourth, James O’Keefe, used his cell phone to try to capture video of the scene inside, authorities said.

Last year, O’Keefe, a 25-year-old self-described investigative journalist, posed as a pimp in the hidden-camera videos that embarrassed the community organizing group ACORN.

Michael Madigan, O’Keefe’s lawyer, said Wednesday that his client was not trying to wiretap or interfere with Landrieu’s phones, but he would not explain why O’Keefe was there. He also would not say whether O’Keefe was working for someone or was on his own.

“The truth will come out,” said Madigan, a Washington lawyer who represented Sen. Howard Baker, the Republican who famously asked during the Watergate investigation, “What did the President know and when did he know it?”

The incident occurred a month after Landrieu announced her support for the Senate health-care bill. As the vote neared, conservatives complained they were unable to register protests at her offices because their calls were referred to voice mail boxes that often were full.

“We did hear that complaint, but absolutely at no time did Sen. Landrieu or her staff intentionally avoid phone calls related to health care or any other topic,” Landrieu spokesman Aaron Saunders said Wednesday.

All four men were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, which carries up to 10 years in prison. They were not charged with wiretapping.

Meanwhile, the conservatives who once made O’Keefe their hero for his hidden-camera expose of ACORN distanced themselves from his latest project.

Hannah Giles — who posed as a prostitute for the sting videos, in which ACORN staffers appeared to offer illegal tax advice and support the misuse of public funds — said she was shocked when she heard about O’Keefe’s arrest.

“I am well aware that following the law is an integral part of being a good investigative journalist,” Giles said in a statement. “I take that responsibility and accountability very seriously. I certainly hope these reports are untrue.”

Fox News’ Glenn Beck, who made O’Keefe’s ACORN expose a national phenomenon by championing the videos, said on his radio show that if the allegations against O’Keefe are true, the young man crossed the line.

“You don’t do anything illegal. That’s Watergate territory. You just don’t do that,” Beck said. “But besides that, I don’t even think you go dressed up. I mean, it’s a senator. For the love of Pete, it’s a senator.”

All four defendants shared an interest in conservative politics and commentary.

O’Keefe and Joseph Basel, 24, formed their own conservative publications on their college campuses — O’Keefe at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Basel at the University of Minnesota-Morris.

“Joe had a lot of ideas,” said Kim Ukura, who founded The Counterweight with Basel and another student in 2005. “He was really excited about the things he wanted to do. He was really passionate about his beliefs, I guess.”

A third defendant, Stan Dai, 24, was editor of George Washington University’s conservative paper and directed a program aimed at getting college students interested in the intelligence field after 9/11.

The fourth man, Robert Flanagan, 24, wrote for the blog of the New Orleans-based conservative Pelican Institute. Flanagan is the only one of the four from Louisiana. His father is the acting federal prosecutor for western Louisiana.

O’Keefe was a featured speaker at a Pelican Institute luncheon in Louisiana days before his arrest. But institute President Kevin Kane said Wednesday that he had no idea what happened at Landrieu’s office or what the four were doing there.

O’Keefe’s ACORN videos were first posted on biggovernment.com, run by conservative Andrew Breitbart, and O’Keefe has been a paid contributor to the site. But in an e-mail, Breitbart said: “We have no knowledge about or connection to any alleged acts and events involving James O’Keefe at Senator Mary Landrieu’s office.”

On his Web site Wednesday, Breitbart also noted that the defendants had not been charged with wiretapping. And he ridiculed the notion that O’Keefe would be “stupid enough to try to ‘wiretap’ a sitting U.S. senator in broad daylight during office hours, while recording the entire sequence of events on his cell phone camera.”

Landrieu, who was in Washington at the time, called the plot “unsettling” for her and her staff.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan said Republicans once praised O’Keefe as an American hero, “yet today, in light of these deplorable and illegal attacks on the office of a United States senator by their champion, Republicans have not offered a single iota of disgust, a whisper of indignation or even a hint of outrage.”

O’Keefe, Basel and Dai would not comment when they went to court Wednesday for pretrial matters. Flanagan was not with them. All four are free on $10,000 bail. They are due back in court Feb. 12.

O’Keefe’s father, James O’Keefe Jr. of Westwood, N.J., said he hadn’t spoken to his son since his arrest but added: “I know my son. My son wouldn’t attempt anything illegal.”

Outgoing U.S. Attorney recalls ‘Jena Six’ case, other achievements

By Abbey Brown • abrown@thetowntalk.com • January 24, 2010

Donald Washington said it was the “right time” to step down from his post as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana.

He is leaving to practice law at the Jones Walker law firm’s Lafayette office. His last day in office was Monday.

“I think it is well-known that the (U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu) and (President Barack Obama) administration intended to move in a different direction,” Washington said.

“It became important for me to make and execute my plans. Over the last several weeks I’ve come to grips with the idea of moving from this office and moving back into private industry.”

Washington served as U.S. Attorney for more than eight years after being appointed by President George W. Bush and taking office in September 2001, just six days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

While serving as the chief federal law enforcement officer, Washington led an office of 75 Assistant U.S. Attorneys and support staff, along with many federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in an aggressive effort to combat terrorism, drug trafficking, violent crime, public corruption, health-care fraud and the exploitation of children, and to pursue and collect monies owed to the government, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.

Washington was the first black man ever to serve as the U.S. Attorney for the district and became a leader in enforcing federal laws, both criminal and civil, designed to guarantee the civil rights of all Americans. He directed criminal prosecutions against the unlawful intimidation of citizens through cross burnings and noose hangings, and supervised the eminent resolution of decade-old litigation aimed at ending racial discrimination in the school systems of Lafayette, St. Landry and Evangeline parishes, according to the office.

One case that put Washington in national headlines was that of the “Jena Six.” Although none of the Jena youths — the six black teens who were convicted in state court for their roles in the beating of a white teen at Jena High School — ever spent a day in federal court, Washington, his office and the Department of Justice got involved in educating the community and nation about the issues around the case and helping the community heal.

“There’s a huge story that one day may be told,” Washington said. “To sum up our involvement, the Department of Justice did a great job of ensuring that controversies that happen on school campuses don’t become federal cases unless the facts in evidence lead us in that direction.

“As far as the kids are concerned, it is more than abundantly apparent that they never intended for what happened in two disparate and separate events to be linked together and become the focus of a national controversy. And to this day, all of those groups that intended to ferret out any kind of nefarious conduct on behalf of the citizens of the Jena community still have failed to do so. All in all, the federal agencies involved — from the U.S. Attorney’s Office to the FBI to the Department of Community Relations — performed their duties admirably, professionally and thoroughly.”

Washington’s influence went beyond the borders of western Louisiana. He served for four years as a member of the Attorney General’s Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C., a select group of United States Attorneys who assist the Attorney General in developing national policy for the Department of Justice. He also served two years as chairman and lead U.S. Attorney over the Southeast Region Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force covering eight states in multiple judicial districts.

Washington also was asked by the Department of Justice to lead a Rule of Law Project in Katmandu, Nepal, a joint Justice and State Department project designed to improve the justice sector in south Asia. Washington traveled twice to Katmandu.

Washington said it would be hard to pick the most important or meaningful thing he was involved in during his time with the office.

“I think the work we did in anti-terrorism was excellent and important in safe-guarding the lives of Americans and positioning us in a way that we were ahead of the ball rather than behind it,” he said.

“I think the work we did in violent crime and child exploitation was also extraordinary and notable and in some cases lead to a significant reduction in crime in some of the cities in the district. And I think the work we did in civil rights prosecution and investigation was also notable.”

‘Louisiana Watergate’ a serious offense

January 31, 2010

Louisiana Democratic Party Chair Michael McHale labeled what appeared to be an attempt to wiretap U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in New Orleans as “Louisiana Watergate.”

The four young men arrested for the botched attempt to, as one of their lawyers said, catch Landrieu staffers ignoring calls complaining about her health care vote fall far short of being Watergate-quality burglars. But they’re still in big trouble for entering a federal office under false pretenses.

One of the four being the son of acting U.S. Attorney Bill Flanagan in Shreveport makes it a bit more complicated. Flanagan, who had been the lead assistant to U.S. Attorney Donald Washington, stepped into the top spot in mid-January when Washington resigned after learning that he would not be reappointed.

Jim Letten, the U.S. attorney in New Orleans who is investigating the ordeal, is in the middle of a political play staged by U.S. Sen. David Vitter, who stopped short of condemning the pretend phone repair crew. Vitter said “it’s obvious this is a very serious matter. We’re blessed with an extremely competent U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Orleans, and I know they’ll handle this as aggressively as they have other serious cases.”

Despite the fact that Landrieu told President Barack Obama that she wanted Letten to stay in office, and it’s tradition for a president to follow the advice of the senior senator of his political party in a state, Vitter put a hold on every federal criminal justice appointee Obama has named in Louisiana. He said he would release the hold when Obama names Letten the U.S. attorney.

Well, it’s happened, so Vitter is now taking steps to remove the hold.

Among those to come up for Senate confirmation is Lafayette attorney Stephanie Finley as U.S. attorney in Shreveport. She will replace Flanagan, whose son is facing a possible 10 years in federal prison for his part in the Landrieu affair.

Gov. Bobby Jindal, who does not have a particularly close relationship with Landrieu, said the attempt to record her staff was “not acceptable.” He said he trusts the federal law enforcement system to “punish those actions.”

“That office represents the United States senator who was elected by the people of Louisiana,” Jindal said. “I don’t care what your politics are … we need to respect the law.”

And speaking of Landrieu, recall organizer Ruben Leblanc of New Iberia isn’t letting Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s legal opinion that there’s no way to recall a federal official slow him down.

“Opinions are like noses. Everybody’s got one,” Leblanc says, so he’s got 900 volunteers around the state gathering signatures on a petition that he downloaded from the secretary of state’s office.

Constitutional politics: The lieutenant governor of Louisiana is a heartbeat away from becoming governor, but Gov. Bobby Jindal is pushing to eliminate the slot and pass the duties on to other elected officials. And if things go as expected in the New Orleans mayor’s race, Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu won’t be around to object.

State Rep. Cameron Henry, R-New Orleans, says he’s already working on legislation that would do what the governor wants.

“During these tough economic times, this legislation would save money and reduce the size of government,” Henry said. “Our lieutenant governor does not preside over the Senate as in some other states, so he has few formal powers or duties.”

Stripping the office would take a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and a majority endorsement of state voters.

Political football: When the Saints beat the Minnesota Vikings, Gov. Tim Pawlenty lost a bet which required him to play “When the Saints Go Marching In” on his weekly radio show and send Gov. Bobby Jindal a Viking cooler full of Minnesota beers.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar delivered homemade gumbo to the office of Sen. Mary Landrieu, making good on a wager. She had to wear a Drew Bees jersey.

Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak delivered to New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin three CDs of Minneapolis music from the independent music store The Electric Fetus.

U.S. Rep. Erik Paulsen lost a Minnesota meal (walleye and wild rice) to fellow GOP Rep. Steve Scalise.

The Louisiana lawmakers wagered much better food and music.

Mike Hasten is the capital bureau chief for Louisiana Gannett newspapers. He can be contacted at mhasten@gannett.com.


Finley nominated for U.S. Attorney

From staff reports • January 20, 2010

President Barack Obama’s announced today he has nominated Stephanie Finley as U.S. Attorney for Louisiana’s Western District. Sen. Mary Landrieu recommended Finley for the post in July of last year. Finley would replace Donald Washington, who served as U.S. Attorney until earlier this month when he announced his departure.

For the last 18 years, Stephanie Finley has practiced law in the federal arena as a Judge Advocate and an Assistant U.S. Attorney. She is currently senior litigation counsel for the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Lafayette, where she previously served as acting deputy chief.

Over the past 14 years, she’s been an attorney in the Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria, Lafayette and Lake Charles Division of the District.

 A Lt. Colonel stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base, Finley previously served her nation on active duty in the U.S. Air Force, and currently is a reservist. In her military capacity, Finley accrued judicial experience as a Summary Courts-martial hearing officer, presiding over trials for violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, probable cause hearings and administrative discharge boards.

In these capacities,Finley has been responsible for the charging of juries/boards, hearing arguments, ruling on evidence and rendering sentences.  Finley earned her bachelor’s degree from Grambling State University and her law degree from Southern University.


U.S. attorney to resign post with Western District

  • Advocate Acadiana bureau
  • Published: Jan 8, 2010 – Page: 1B-Acadiana
  • LAFAYETTE — After more than eight years of service, U.S. Attorney Donald Washington announced Thursday that he would be stepping down from his post in the Western District of Louisiana effective Jan. 18.

    Washington said it was time to depart and move on to the next stage. He said he could not specifically identify what he’ll be doing, but did say that he’ll be returning to the private practice of law and remaining in Louisiana.

    “For a lawyer and a citizen of this country, to be able to sit as the U.S. attorney is not only a privilege and honor, but an absolute pleasure each and every day,” Washington said.

    President George W. Bush appointed Washington to the post in September 2001, six days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

    There was no word on Washington’s replacement and the U.S. Attorney General’s Office declined comment Thursday.

    Washington said an interim U.S. attorney will take over the office and eventually President Barack Obama’s choice will navigate through the Senate.

    In July, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., named John Belton and Stephanie Finley as her recommendations to fill the post to Obama.

    In a news release, Landrieu’s office described Belton as a career prosecutor who has served as a courtroom advocate for his community for 16 years.

    Belton has worked as assistant district attorney based in Ruston since 1992 with a 95 percent conviction rate in prosecuting felony, misdemeanor, juvenile and child support cases.

    Finley has practiced law in the federal arena as a judge advocate and assistant U.S. Attorney for the last 17 years, according to the release. She has served as an attorney in Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria, Lafayette and Lake Charles Division of the Western District for 13 years. She is acting deputy chief of the Criminal Division of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Lafayette, the release said.

    The Obama administration has yet to nominate anyone for the post, Landrieu’s office said.

    Washington’s most memorable moments include those that dealt with addressing violent drug and gang issues and civil rights enforcement, he said.

    Washington, the first black man to serve as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, led an office of 75 assistant U.S.

    Attorneys and support staff along with many federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, according to a news release.

    Some notable highlights in Washington’s tenure include: directing criminal prosecutions involving cross burnings and noose hangings; and overseeing the eminent resolution of decade-old litigation aimed at ending racial discrimination in the school systems of Lafayette, St. Landry and Evangeline parishes, the release said.

    Washington also served as co-counsel in high-profile cases involving the convictions of Caddo Parish District Judge Michael Walker and Caddo Parish Juvenile Judge Vernon Claville, both of whom were charged with racketeering; and Dr. Mehmood Patel, a Lafayette cardiologist who was charged with health-care fraud.

    “I leave this office with great confidence in the future knowing that the dedicated men and women in this office and throughout the United States Department of Justice will continue to steadfastly serve the cause of justice for as long as this great nation continues to deserve the blessings of liberty,” Washington said in a news release.

    Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft worked closely with Washington’s office on a number of operations. Craft said Washington served citizens with “integrity and objectivity” and made a genuine effort to work closely with local law enforcement to address violent crime.

    “Both his personal and professional life are beyond reproach,” Craft said in an e-mail. “From the time I first met him, he made it very clear that no one was above the law and he would pursue cases no matter who or where they led to. I am proud to know him and thankful for the opportunity to work with a person of his caliber.”