NEW ORLEANS - Four young conservative activists hoped to record embarrassing hidden camera footage to document allegations her staff was ignoring calls critical of her stance on health care reform, an attorney for one of the men said Thursday.
Attorney J. Garrison Jordan denied the four men were trying to disable or wiretap the phones in Sen. Mary Landrieu's office at a federal building in New Orleans.
"You're dealing with kids," he said. "I don't think they thought it through that far."
Instead, Jordan said, they hoped to get embarrassing video footage of her staff handling constituent calls.
Democrats are calling the incident at Landrieu's office "Louisiana Watergate."
The operation's style recalled the famous 1972 Watergate break-in at the Democratic Party's national headquarters, which ballooned into a scandal that consumed Republican Richard Nixon's presidency and led to his resignation.
The four accused in the scheme include James O'Keefe, made famous by posing as a pimp and targeting the community-organizing group ACORN, the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, in hidden camera videos.
Last year, O'Keefe, a 25-year-old self-described investigative journalist, posed as a pimp in the hidden-camera videos that embarrassed ACORN. Its political affiliates have registered hundreds of thousands of voters in urban and other poor areas of the country.
After the uproar over O'Keefe's videos, the ACORN lost government and corporate contracts and the support of President Barack Obama. Obama, a former community organizer and a lawyer in Chicago, represented ACORN in 1995 in a lawsuit.
Jordan said his client, Robert Flanagan, the 24-year-old son of a federal prosecutor in Louisiana, did not intend to break the law when he entered the office posing as a telephone worker Monday.
No matter their intentions, the four face the serious charge of entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, which carries up to 10 years in prison. They are free on $10,000 bail.
Charged along with O'Keefe and Flanagan were Joseph Basel, 24, and Stan Dai, 24. The four are due back in court Feb. 12.
Authorities said O'Keefe was using his cellphone to try to capture video of two of his fellow defendants in Landrieu's office before their arrest. The two posing as telephone repairmen - wearing fluorescent vests, tool belts and hard hats, one of which had a hidden camera - asked to see the phones at Landrieu's office. The fourth is alleged to have waited outside in a car with a listening device to pick up transmissions.
O'Keefe has declined to discuss what he and the others were doing in Landrieu's office.
Last month, protesters marched in front of Landrieu's office in Baton Rouge to criticize her support for U.S. health care legislation and complain that they couldn't get through on her office phones. Landrieu said at the time that her office received a high volume of calls.
"Our lines have been jammed for weeks, and I apologize," Landrieu said in interview with The Advocate of Baton Rouge in December. "But no amount of jamming is going to keep me from supporting a good work for Louisiana and the nation."
Andrew Breitbart, whose biggovernment.com site launched O'Keefe's ACORN videos and who has since hired O'Keefe as a contributor, also downplayed the federal case.
"Their uniforms were outlandish," Breitbart said in an interview, "... a blatant clown-nose-on spectacle to make a salient political yet mildly humorous point."
O'Keefe hinted last week that he had a new, high-profile stunt in the works. Four days before he was charged in connection with the Landrieu incident, he promised his audience at a conservative think-tank 's luncheon they would be hearing about a project he was working on in New Orleans.
He wouldn't elaborate, according to people who heard his speech at the Pelican Institute's event last Thursday in New Orleans.
Flanagan worked part-time with the institute, writing for its blog and helping with luncheons.