It appears that conservative filmmaker James O’Keefe is continuing to comment on his case. Raw Story and other sites are reporting that O’Keefe tweeted shortly around midnight last night that “Govt official concedes no attempt to wiretap.” In the meantime, it appears that the stunt in New Orleans may have been an effort to cut off the telephones or film their operation as opposed to wiretapping calls. I discussed this story on Hardball and Rachel Maddow.
As noted in the segment below from Countdown, the affidavit accompanying the charges was curious in two respects. First, the government was charging a higher category of trespass by alleging intent to commit a felony. However, the prosecutors failed to state what that felony was. The clear suggestion of the affidavit was that the “malicious” interference with the telephone system was to wiretap Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office. Second, if this was a conspiracy to wiretap, one would have expected a reference to electronic surveillance equipment found at the scene.
Now, O’Keefe is saying that the government is not pursuing a surveillance theory. Such a development is important and worth public attention.
If he is not accused of attempted electronic surveillance, the ten year maximum under section 1036 may be the upper limit. The affidavit appears to be referring to section 1362 which states:
Whoever … willfully or maliciously interferes in any way with the working or use of any [radio, telegraph, telephone or cable, line, station, or system, or other means of communication, operated or controlled by the United States], or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both.
Section 2 of that law expressed includes:
(a) Whoever commits an offense against the United States or aids, abets, counsels, commands, induces or procures its commission, is punishable as a principal.
This may ultimately be the dispossession of the charges with Sections 1036 and 1362. However, there are also possible charges of conspiracy and false statements for these men as well as possible third parties.
It has also been reported that O’Keefe is under a gag order not to discuss the case. These orders can create difficulties for the defense when someone like O’Keefe is being widely accused of a wiretapping conspiracy. He has an obvious desire to rebut those allegations — as do his lawyers. Moreover, he was merely referencing a news development in a brief tweet.
Finally, a court would be on precarious ground when it says that a defendant cannot speak for himself in public. O’Keefe could raise first amendment claims if the government decides to raise the matter with the court. Nevertheless, it could be viewed as a technical violation since these orders often refer to the parties in general and not just the lawyers. One recent such controversy occurred in Texas, here, but such disputes are not uncommon in high profile cases. For another such recent case, click here.
Restrictions on statements to the press are often imposed by court rules for any criminal case. A court can then add a more detailed and demanding gag order in a given case. Reports indicate that a gag order was in place in this case.
Even without a gag order, it is always a mistake for clients to directly manage the media or speak on a case. Most lawyers strictly forbid such communications absent prior legal review and supervision. While this violation is not likely to result in a serious penalty, it can bring a rebuke from the Court and undermine the relationship with the judge.
MSNBC is reporting that officials say that the men did want to interfere with the phones by shutting them off (one of the possibilities that I discussed below). In a remarkably dumb prank, they “wanted to see how her local office staff would respond if the phones were inoperative.” This was connected to their opposition to Sen. Landrieu’s position on health care. I will not try to bridge that logical gap.
O’Keefe seems to relish reckless acts. His stunt with ACORN appears to have violated state laws. Even without a surveillance conspiracy, the Landrieu stunt is still quite serious. What is interesting is that O’Keefe hardly needs to directly communicate such information given the press attention in the case.
For the story, click here.