The O’Keefe/Letten dust-up at Tulane: more there than sound and fury?

James O'Keefe

Donkey Hotey

James O'Keefe

After he was arrested by the FBI in January 2010 for allegedly attempting to tamper with phone lines in Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office, James O’Keefe yelled, “The truth shall set me free!”

A few months later O’Keefe and friends pleaded guilty to entering federal property under false pretenses. O’Keefe told a judge he took “full responsibility” for the decision to visit Landrieu’s office, and was sentenced to three years probation.

He apparently regrets that decision, and now says he was “charged with a crime I did not commit.” Moreover, he wants to blame former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten for “ruining his life.” Yesterday O’Keefe released videos showing a July confrontation he had with Letten, who is now assistant dean at Tulane Law School. Aside from the yelling, name-calling, finger-pointing, book-tossing, and flying accusations, it seemed like a cordial encounter.

It’s worth noting that many conservatives once viewed O’Keefe as a serious investigative journalist, rather than as a goofy political provocateur. In 2010 he had come to Louisiana to speak at the Pelican Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank which gushed that O’Keefe was “a pioneer in the use of new media to drive … important stories.”

That’s when he and some associates made their visit to Landrieu’s office in the Hale Boggs building, to film a gag. The intent was to show that Landrieu was avoiding calls from constituents who were upset over her vote for Obamacare. She had claimed calls weren’t getting through because the lines were jammed. So two of O’Keefe’s cohorts, costumed as phone company technicians, were going to “check” the operability of Landrieu’s phones while O’Keefe filmed them with the camera in his cell phone.

Getting arrested kind of took the fun out of all that.

Three years later, O’Keefe feels wronged and wants to retry the case in the court of public opinion. He scored some points with the video, which showed Letten losing his cool and calling O’Keefe “scum” and a “hobbit,” among other choice epithets.

The verbal jousting is entertaining, of course, but let’s inspect the basis of O’Keefe’s complaints against Letten, which are explored in more detail in a second video O’Keefe released yesterday.

When Letten recused himself from the O’Keefe case, it fell to then-First Assistant Attorney Jan Mann. As the video notes, Mann was part of the online comment scandal that led last year to her resignation (among others) and then Letten’s. Mann’s admission of covert online activity, after months of denials, was one of the reasons that Letten “resigned in disgrace,” as O’Keefe sneers in the video.

This background adds an interesting dimension to O’Keefe’s claim that Mann, or someone on her team, leaked privileged emails between O’Keefe and his lawyer, in an attempt to drive media coverage against him. In the second video, O’Keefe says that Attorney General Eric Holder pressured Letten’s office to prosecute O’Keefe (presumably for political reasons).

The videos note some of the many interconnections in and outside Letten’s office. For example, Mann and her husband were both top prosecutors, and Sen. Landrieu’s brother Maurice was a prosecutor on staff. The second video quotes from a letter O’Keefe’s attorneys sent to the Department of Justice asking that Mann recuse herself from the case due to “intertwining political issues.” (According to O’Keefe, there was no response to the request.)

The letter failed to mention a relevant fact that I’ve wondered about: Mann grew up with Landrieu. They were classmates at Ursuline Academy (both were class of ‘73 graduates). Further, Mann’s father — Joseph Maselli — a proud Italian-American and fervent foe of ethnic and racial bigotry, proposed building the Piazza d’Italia to Mayor Moon Landrieu. (The plaza is now undergoing renovations under Moon’s son, Mayor Mitch Landrieu).  Indeed, according to Maselli’s Oct. 23, 2009, obituary in The Times-Picayune, Moon Landrieu was an honorary pallbearer for Maselli. So Mann grew up with Mary Landrieu, and their fathers were friends.

This seems to be the basis of a pretty clear conflict of interest. Letten’s recusal might have given the appearance of fairness, but Mann may have had more of a conflict than her boss! If so, Mann should not have prosecuted the case and should have recused herself along with Letten.

And at that point, perhaps another U.S. Attorney’s office should have been brought in to handle the case. O’Keefe seems to have a legitimate (if belated) complaint about the conflict of interest issues. And his claims about email leaks and possibly unethical prosecutorial conduct now have more credibility than they did in 2010.

Adding to the intrigue, this morning the conservative web site Patterico’s Pontifications published an exclusive inside account of a conversation journalist Charles Johnson had with Letten last month. Letten asked for the conversation to be off record, but Johnson didn’t agree. Johnson claims that, according to Letten, the “decision to prosecute O’Keefe and to accept Letten’s recusal was made at ‘the very highest levels of the Justice Department.’” This comment aligns with O’Keefe’s claim that Attorney General Holder was involved in his prosecution — as usually happens whenever a case has partisan political overtones.

Johnson also implies there was a fairly cozy relationship between Letten and former NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune criminal justice reporter John Simerman, who now writes for The Advocate. Johnson believes Simerman used Letten as an unnamed source in a July story about the faceoff with O’Keefe, and cites Simerman’s “very sympathetic portrait of the former U.S. Attorney only days after he resigned in disgrace.”

Simerman, who has declined to engage on the issue in the past, did not immediately respond to a fresh request for comment.

Johnson asked Letten whether “online sock puppetry” — coordinated activity via multiple user accounts to shape opinion in an online forum — occurred in the O’Keefe case. Letten avoided a direct answer. (It wouldn’t be unprecedented, though. Prosecutors in Letten’s office engaged in the tactic, according to my research.) My initial scan of nola.com stories about O’Keefe found no instances of sock puppetry. However there is a nola.com article in which “painman11,” whom I’ve previously identified as a user of interest, approves of Letten’s decision to recuse himself.

O’Keefe styles himself a truth-seeker. He seems to regret succumbing to pressure and pleading guilty to a misdemeanor he now contends he didn’t commit — a belated wave of remorse, it must be conceded. (The shoddiness of his previous work doesn’t help him now, either.)

Nonetheless, given the conflicts of interest in his case, and the spectacular implosion of the U.S. Attorney’s office that prosecuted him, we may want to take a second look at O’Keefe’s substantive claims about media leaks and prosecutorial misconduct in 2010.

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  • mike953

    Why do you forget to mention that O’Keefe fabricated the video that took down Acorn. The man has no credibility and Letten shouldn’t have let him get under his skin.

  • jeffreyskooks

    Isn’t that what the “shoddiness of his former work” line is about?

  • Owen Courrèges

    This is really interesting stuff here. O’Keefe is certainly a muckraker who misleads and distorts with his videos (much like Michael Moore, IMO), but if the decision to prosecute him really came from higher-ups in the Justice Department, that’s disturbing, especially in light of the connections between the US Attorney’s Office and Landrieu.

    Then again, I always look smaller for my injustices. What I really notice in the video is that O’Keefe is being accused by Tulane PD of trespassing on Tulane’s property when he was standing on the sidewalk on Freret Street — which is city-owned property. I certainly hope Tulane doesn’t think it owns the sidewalk. Sidewalks are public rights-of-way. According to other reports, Tulane PD escorted O’Keefe off of Tulane’s campus, but the sidewalk isn’t part of the campus. There was no legal basis for escorting him anywhere.

  • Owen Courrèges

    “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”

    – George Bernard Shaw

  • JimTreacher

    Because he didn’t.

    Hope that helps!

  • Lestat

    One never knows what one may uncover when digging thru the Garbage. Never turn your back on a Politician as most are Lawyers, and one can judge a lawyer just by the empty suit they wear.

  • Katrina Nation

    is that the same Maselli that owns the maintenance company that has all the contracts?