BALTIMORE - State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy has ordered an investigation of right-wing operatives James O'Keefe and Hannah Giles, who posed as a prostitute and pimp and illegally videotaped two ACORN receptionists at the group's Baltimore office. The ACORN staffers are shown on the video advising the two tricksters dressed in outlandish garb on how to set up a brothel in the city.
Maryland law forbids taping people without their prior consent. Jessamy issued a statement Sept. 11 announcing that in response to numerous inquiries from the public she has launched a probe to determine if O'Keefe and Giles violated Article 10-402 of the Annotated Code of Maryland.
"If it is determined that the audio portion now being heard on YouTube was illegally obtained, it is also illegal under Maryland law to willfully use or willfully disclose the content of said audio," Jessamy said. "The penalty for the unlawful interception, disclosure or use of it is a felony punishable up to five years."
The case recalls that of Linda Tripp, the White House and Pentagon secretary who pretended to befriend Monica Lewinsky and then secretly videotaped her making scandalous disclosures about her sexual encounters with President Clinton. Tripp was charged with violating the Maryland law against secret taping but the charges were dropped before it came to trial.
ACORN has fired the part-time receptionists, as well as two other ACORN staff-workers entrapped in a similar dirty trick operation by O'Keefe and Giles in Washington, D.C.
ACORN CEO Bertha Lewis announced that the group is ordering an independent investigation of "the indefensible action of a handful of our employees." She said ACORN will work to win back the confidence of ACORN's more than 300,000 members and the millions of people who support the group. ACORN is suspending virtually all its activities pending completion of the probe.
The video has been played endlessly on Fox News and by right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck and others in a ruthless witch-hunt against ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). It succeeded in stampeding the House and Senate to vote overwhelmingly to cut off federal funds that ACORN has used to help thousands of low-income families avoid foreclosures and evictions from their homes.
"We're disappointed that the House took the rare and politically convenient step of attempting to eliminate federal funding for a single organization, one that has been the target of a multi-year political assault stemming variously from the Bush White House, Fox News and other conservative quarters," Lewis said. Over the past decade or more ACORN has received a total of about $53 million that it has used under strict federal guidelines to assist homeowners, the poor, and the unemployed. For example, the group distributed just under $1 million in federal assistance to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans where ACORN is headquartered. Lewis said ACORN depends almost exclusively on contributions from members and supporters to keep operating. "The only real victims of today's vote are the families who have benefited from ACORN's important work," she said.
The McCain campaign and the Republican Party sought to whip up a furor over ACORN's voter registration work for last November's election. ACORN itself had identified a handful of voter registration workers responsible for false registrations and notified authorities. McCain and the GOP toiled without much success to link Barack Obama to the low-income advocacy group and implied that he was responsible for any of the group's shortcomings. ACORN registered millions of legal, valid voters, mostly low-income people, white, African America and Latino, who played a crucial role in defeating the Republican right last fall.
Karl Frisch, in an article on the Media Matters for America web site, writes that the story "really has a lot more to do with Fox News and conservative media activism than with ACORN. The undercover videos first appeared on BigGovernment.com founded by Andrew Breitbart, a protégé of Matt Drudge and a conservative with a long record of highly partisan and inflammatory statements." He adds that Breitbart has developed a direct line to Glenn Beck and so it wasn't long before the videos were being presented breathlessly on his TV and radio programs." He cites right-wing pundit Monica Crowley raving, "Obama is Van Jones, Obama is ACORN." Van Jones, appointed by President Obama to spearhead his "Green Energy, Green Jobs" initiative, was forced to step down by a similar witch-hunt a couple of weeks ago.