Political activist accused in caper

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ and BOB VON , Sternberg and ERIC ROPER
  • Updated: January 27, 2010 - 11:49 PM

Former U-Morris student charged in phone-tampering in senator's Louisiana office.

Joseph Basel

Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky,

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WASHINGTON - Joseph Basel's Facebook page describes his political views in one word: "Radical."

But his friends and family who know his politics weren't prepared Wednesday for the news that the former Minnesota university student had been arrested in New Orleans for allegedly tampering with the phones of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La.

Basel, 24, a onetime conservative activist at the University of Minnesota-Morris, is one of four men facing felony charges in the case, which is being investigated by the FBI.

One of the other suspects is James O'Keefe, a filmmaker whose hidden-camera exposé of the activist group ACORN caused a furor in Congress last year.

According to a court affidavit, Basel posed as a telephone worker wearing a hard hat, tool belt and fluorescent vest Monday while walking into the senator's office in a federal building. When challenged, he and an accomplice said they had forgotten their IDs in their truck.

It's not yet clear whether the plan was a prank intended to be captured on camera or a more serious attempt at political espionage, as claimed by state Democrats who dubbed it "Louisiana Watergate."

While at Morris, Basel founded an on-campus conservative magazine and was one of more than a dozen College Republicans from the school who attended George W. Bush's 2005 presidential inauguration.

A year later, Basel became the campaign manager for Minnesota Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria. Ingebrigtsen said he's talked to Basel only a few times since then and was "baffled" by his former aide's arrest.

Reached at their Mankato home, Basel's parents -- the Rev. Dan Basel, a Lutheran minister, and Lisa Basel -- declined to comment. His brother John, reached on a cell phone listed to Joseph Basel, said he had no comment. "I don't even know much myself," he said.

Tea Party fan

Joe Basel's online persona mirrors the energy of the conservative movement in recent months. His Facebook page says he is a fan of the Tea Party Patriots, the Young America's Foundation and the late William F. Buckley. His recent posts place him at the acceptance speech of GOP Senate candidate Scott Brown, whose victory in Massachusetts last week put congressional Democrats in a tailspin.

On his Twitter page, Basel wrote late Tuesday, "Everyone is safe and released. Veritas" -- Latin for truth.

Friends who flocked to Basel's Facebook page in the past few days seemed shocked to find him in the national spotlight. "Holy crap it was you!" one wrote. "Hope things work out alright for you!" wrote another.

At least one person wasn't so surprised, writing: "I always knew you'd end up in the New York Times for something, just wasn't sure what exactly for..."

Basel's association with O'Keefe stems from their connection to the Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Va., organization that bills its mission as "training tomorrow's conservative leaders."

O'Keefe once worked in the group's student division, which provided a $500 "Balance in the Media" grant that helped Basel launch The Counterweight, at the University of Minnesota-Morris, which he graduated from in 2008.

"We're essentially starting 'City Papers' at colleges and universities, except they're conservative," said Leadership Institute Vice President Steve Sutton, who once supervised O'Keefe.

O'Keefe left the institute in 2007 to pursue political filmmaking, said Sutton, a former aide to U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. But if the allegations in New Orleans are true, Sutton added, "It doesn't sound like he used the best judgment."

Until their arrests on Monday, O'Keefe and his colleagues had been young heroes to some. Earlier, a group of Republican House members that included Kline, co-sponsored a resolution praising their "exemplary actions as government watchdogs" in the ACORN sting.

Troy Young, a spokesman for Kline, said the resolution "was offered well before any allegations of illegal conduct. The congressman certainly doesn't condone illegal activity."

O'Keefe's partner in the ACORN sting, Hannah Giles, also was courted by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who invited Giles to her Washington office recently to talk to Minnesota reporters about ACORN. Giles and O'Keefe had posed as a pimp and prostitute appearing to get business advice from ACORN, which receives federal funding. Giles was not involved in the New Orleans incident.

Entered under false pretenses

One of the other suspects, Stan Dai, 24, was editor of his university's conservative paper, while a fourth suspect, Robert Flanagan, 24, wrote for the Pelican Institute. Flanagan had recently criticized Landrieu for her vote on health care legislation. O'Keefe was a featured speaker at a Pelican Institute luncheon days before his arrest. Flanagan is the son of the acting U.S. Attorney for northern Louisiana, whom Landrieu has sought to replace.

All four suspects were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony.

According to the FBI affidavit, Basel and Flanagan arrived at Landrieu's office in the Hale Boggs Federal Building about 11 a.m. Monday, saying they were phone company repair technicians.

O'Keefe was already in the office and positioned his cell phone to record video of the pair. Basel picked up the handset of the main telephone at the reception desk of Landrieu's office and tried -- or pretended to try -- to call it with their cell phones.

Saying they could not complete the calls, they were directed to the telephone closet, so they could work on the building's telephone system.

Shortly afterward, they were arrested by U.S. marshals.

Landrieu, who was in Washington at the time, issued a statement that called the plot "unsettling" for her and her staff.

Staff writer Mary Lynn Smith and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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