James O'Keefe in his pimp getup, post-ACORN ambush.
Jimmy Cracks ACORN
If Naffe felt distant from the GOP that had swept her off her feet in college, O’Keefe represented a refreshing break from rank-and-file Republicanism. A red headed preppy kid from New Jersey, he was making his name known at Fox News just as the Tea Party was metastasizing. Conservatives had been cowed by the 2008 elections, but O’Keefe was eager to play hardball — and with each new home run, he drew more power players to his side, from the fringe to the old guard.
His arrival in the national spotlight was anything but dumb luck. O’Keefe had been nurturing his act for years.
As a student at Rutgers in the mid-2000s, O’Keefe liked to bait bleeding-heart professors. He penned conservative columns for a campus newspaper, the Daily Targum, and attracted a dedicated band of followers to assist in his first hidden-camera stings. O’Keefe had acted in high-school theater productions, and that training came in handy for developing the fictional characters he’d use to deceive his targets. He filmed himself complaining to a black dining-hall administrator that, as an Irish-American, he was offended by the Lucky Charms cereal served on campus. The online clip found popularity among college Republicans; though Rutgers never banned Lucky Charms, the school’s merely entertaining such an inane request was enough to get O’Keefe’s peers laughing.
Through his Daily Targum columns, in which he railed against political correctness, O’Keefe came to the attention of the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Virginia. The conservative nonprofit claims to have trained nearly 100 working journalists, and in 2004 gave O’Keefe funding to start his own campus publication, The Centurion. Theyalso hired O’Keefe after his Rutgers graduation two years later. O’Keefe conducted more than 70 media workshops across the county for the Leadership Institute, including one at UCLA, where he met a devoted anti-abortionist student named Lila Rose. The two teamed up right away, and Rose went undercover at her school’s health center. There, she reported that a nurse explained how UCLA “doesn’t support people who are pregnant” — comments that Rose and O’Keefe interpreted as pushing Rose toward terminating her fictional pregnancy.
No one got canned, but the exercise received attention from some sympathetic websites that asked Rose to share her account. Emboldened by their success, the pair then began to infiltrate Planned Parenthood offices in California and elsewhere. Posing as a minor, Rose asked employees of Planned Parenthood to advise her on how to skirt parental-consent requirements for obtaining an abortion. They netted some suspects, and even got one nurse’s aide fired. But such tactics proved too controversial for the Leadership Institute. In 2007, after O’Keefe called a Planned Parenthood clinic in Ohio and offered a donation — but only if they agreed to earmark the funds for aborting African-American fetuses — higher-ups at the institute became concerned that O’Keefe’s pranks would jeopardize their nonprofit status. Given the choice to retreat or resign, O’Keefe went solo.
His big score came in the fall of 2009 — O’Keefe’s decisive blow against ACORN, which at the time was among the nation’s leading advocates for poor and disadvantaged people. ACORN had also been historically integral in getting out the minority vote; after the rise of Obama, this made them the object of widespread conservative consternation.
For this jaunt O’Keefe teamed up with a new actress, Hannah Giles, who would later introduce him to Naffe in Tampa. Clad scantily in skin-tight tube tops and miniskirts, Giles played a prostitute while O’Keefe tailed her with a hidden camera into ACORN offices in Washington, Baltimore, and other major cities. O’Keefe played her pimp. To their delight, they captured footage of what could appear to be ACORN employees offering advice on how the pair could launder money and manage the underage hookers they claimed to be trafficking from El Salvador.
The videos O’Keefe released were later found to be heavily — and deceptively — edited. One target of O’Keefe’s video sting would even win a settlement from Giles in a civil suit. But the ramifications were still devastating. Several ACORN employees were fired as a direct result. Fundraising slowed to a virtual halt. Already under scrutiny, the group was dealt a death blow in September 2009, when Congress severed all federal subsidies. That led to walking papers for three-quarters of their national staff. ACORN went bankrupt a year later.
The video might have been less ruinous if it hadn’t found a powerful bullhorn in the form of Andrew Breitbart, who offered O’Keefe and Giles $120,000, to be paid in monthly installments, in exchange for exclusive rights to release the clips on his website, breitbart.com. Ultimately, it was the combined strength of Breitbart’s countless minions — who blanketed the Internet with ACORN links — that did the bulk of the damage.
In fact, the ACORN blitz was also a demonstration of how powerful Breitbart had become. Years earlier, he’d had key roles in starting the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post. But with breitbart.com, he had become both a leader and a figurehead for hard-right warriors everywhere.
In the pursuit of Breitbart’s approval, there’s no allegation his network wouldn’t broadcast, no individual they wouldn’t attack. His defenders were especially protective of O’Keefe, whom Breitbart would later describe in the introduction of his 2011 best seller, Righteous Indignation, as an “incredibly courageous” and an “investigative journalist-cum-Borat of the right.”
Business boomed for O’Keefe in the wake of his ACORN stunt. He was suddenly in high demand on the Obama-bashing lecture circuit. All this came in addition to the funding he received from patrons: Even before Breitbart’s media conglomerate retained rights to the ACORN clips, O’Keefe had already been underwritten by Peter Thiel, an early Facebook investor and California hedge-fund manager who’d bankrolled O’Keefe to the tune of $30,000 earlier that year. Giles, his sidekick, was also a hot ticket, being feted at fundraisers like the one in Ybor City where she met Naffe.
The timing proved to be perfect. Naffe had invested part of her settlement with the GOP in a mall kiosk business on the Tampa waterfront. Following a few years of mediocre sales, she had recently sold the enterprise and set her sights on a graduate degree. And she had eight months of downtime before heading to Cambridge, where she was registered to study management at Harvard Extension School in the fall. So when O’Keefe asked if she wanted to “act” in his “movies,” Naffe didn’t need much convincing. On New Year’s Day 2010, she accepted her first mission. There was no time to waste. O’Keefe arranged for her to fly into Los Angeles that week.
NEXT: In their first mission together, O'Keefe and Naffe infiltrate the field office of Los Angeles Congresswoman Maxine Waters . . .