Former New Orleans U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, holding a smartphone in his hand to film the encounter, berated conservative prankster James O’Keefe as a “horse’s ass” and used other epithets during a confrontation between the two in July.
The encounter was captured on video that O’Keefe took of the incident and released today in an apparent fundraising appeal for O’Keefe’s website, Project Veritas.
“Stay away from my family, you nasty little spud,” Letten tells O’Keefe on the video, referring to an unannounced visit O’Keefe had made earlier on that July 10 day to Letten’s home. “If you want to be a political … extremist nut job, that’s fine. Don’t break the law.” Letten also called O’Keefe a “hobbit” and “scum.”
O’Keefe, who specializes in often deceptively edited undercover camera work to expose what he considers liberal hypocrisies, had filmed himself at Letten’s door imploring his wife, JoAnn, to hear his complaint about being prosecuted “for a crime that he ‘did not commit,” as a police report described it.
In May 2010, O’Keefe and three other activists pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges that they entered the New Orleans offices of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) under false pretenses. Wearing hard hats, tool belts and reflective vests, the activists had pretended to be telephone repairmen and were trying to tamper with Landrieu’s phones. Their felony charges were downgraded to misdemeanors. O’Keefe was sentenced to three years probation, 100 hours of community service and a $1500 fine.
“I didn’t prosecute your case, asshole. I recused,” Letten tells O’Keefe. ”You were properly prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice because you improperly and under ruse … got into a U.S. senator’s office under disguise.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Jordan Ginsberg in Letten’s office handled O’Keefe’s case. Letten’s recusal wasn’t explained, but he was friendly with Shreveport-based federal prosecutor William J. Flanagan, the father of one of the suspects.
O’Keefe – whose most famous work was an undercover video that led to the congressional defunding of liberal community organizing group ACORN – pressed Letten. ”Did you leak my emails to the press, sir?” O’Keefe asked, referring to the 2010 Landrieu caper.
“I don’t interview with you,” Letten answers, although the video appears to be edited at this point so it isn’t clear whether this was Letten’s response to the leak question.
“You resigned in disgrace. And now you’re dean of an institution, a law school?” O’Keefe says at another point.
Letten stepped down last December after it was revealed that top prosecutors in his office had been making vitriolic anonymous online comments about targets of investigations. Letten had served in the job for more than a decade, following his appointment in 2001 by President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama has nominated New Orleans native Kenneth Allen Polite, Jr.to succeed Letten.
O’Keefe posted a message at the bottom of the story, asking visitors to “please consider donating $25, $50, $100 or more to help Project Veritas continue to speak truth to power!”
Neither Letten nor O’Keefe returned Main Justice’s requests for comment.
UPDATE 10/16/2013: As this article reported, James O’Keefe and his fellow activists pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of entering the offices of Sen. Mary Landrieu under false pretenses. Our initial version of this story described O’Keefe and his fellow activists as “apparently trying to bug” the phones during the incident. After O’Keefe’s representative contacted us to object to use of the word “bug,” we offered to clarify the article. Based on the actions described in the negotiated plea, the updated article above states that the activists tried “to tamper with Landrieu’s phones.”
As O’Keefe and his fellow activists admitted in connection with their negotiated plea in federal district court, the group entered Landrieu’s office disguised as telephone repairmen and claimed that they were there to “follow up on reports of problems with the telephone system.” While in Landrieu’s office, one of the activists “walked behind the desk, lifted the phone handset from the cradle, questioned whether there was a dial tone, and handled the receiver.” Two of the activists “also pretended to call the phone with cellular phones in their possession,” and told a Landrieu staff member “they could not get through,” according to the court record. The activists further told a member of Landrieu’s staff and a Government Services Administration manager that they required access to the telephone system’s “central box” to perform repairs.
Based on these facts, a criminal complaint was filed against the activists describing probable cause to believe they entered the senator’s offices under false pretenses for the purpose of “maliciously interfering” with the telephone system, a felony. According to the court record accompanying the activists’ subsequent guilty pleas to the misdemeanor charge, “further investigation” by the government found that “despite their initial statements to the staff of the Senatorial office and GSA requesting access to the central phone system,” the defendants had not “intended to commit any felony” after entering on false pretenses, and that their “purpose” for misrepresenting themselves was to secretly videotape conversations with the senator’s staff, “not to actually tamper with the phone system.”
Without ever contacting Main Justice again, O’Keefe has now sued Main Justice for libel. Needless to say, we strongly disagree with his claim and will give a full answer to his allegations in court.
UPDATE 4/6/2015: U.S. District Judge Claire Cecchi in New Jersey agreed with Main Justice’s arguments and dismissed O’Keefe’s complaint with prejudice on March 30, 2015. Read the judge’s opinion here. Read coverage of her decision here and here.