WASHINGTON — The proposition was outrageous, outlandish and right up James E. O'Keefe III's alley. Hannah Giles was on the phone from Washington, D.C., and she was asking him to dress as her pimp, walk into the offices of the ACORN community activist group, openly admit to wanting to buy a house to run as a brothel and see what happened.
It was serendipity, O'Keefe said Thursday. On that day in May, he was still burning mad after watching a YouTube video of ACORN workers breaking padlocks off foreclosed homes and barging in. "I was upset," he said.
O'Keefe, 25, packed his grandfather's old wide-brimmed derby hat from his swing-dancing days, his grandmother's ratty chinchilla shoulder throw, and a cane he bought at a dollar store, then drove from his parents' home in northern New Jersey to Washington to execute the idea with Giles, 20.
What happened next was a scandal that has shaken ACORN to its core. O'Keefe and Giles secretly videoed ACORN workers in Washington, Brooklyn and Baltimore as they coached the two on how to evade taxes and misrepresent the nature of their business enterprise to get into a home.
On Wednesday, ACORN Chief Executive Bertha Lewis announced an independent review of its operations. The organization also has fired some who were caught on video.
But the group has also said that the videos were manipulated, that in at least one case a worker was simply playing along with what she considered a ridiculous scheme, and that the project was part of a relentless conservative attack on the liberal organization, which offers housing and other services, including voter registration, to the poor.
O'Keefe insists that his and Giles' work was done independently and rejects liberal suggestions that the videos were bankrolled by conservative organizations.
As ACORN's fortunes have fallen, those of O'Keefe and Giles have risen. O'Keefe said that he has received hundreds of requests for interviews and that his inbox has thousands of e-mails.
Their ACORN stunt had a $1,300 budget, O'Keefe said.
O'Keefe, who described himself as an investigative journalist with no formal training, said he bought a $300 plane ticket to California with his own cash to visit ACORN sites in Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Diego.
Giles, whose father is conservative Christian commentator Doug Giles, had not met O'Keefe when she called him in May. They traded e-mails and messages on Facebook before O'Keefe finally drove south to meet her.
Ron Robinson, director of Young America's Foundation, where Hannah Giles spent the summer learning about journalism from conservative media experts, said Doug Giles has reason to be proud of his daughter.
"She deserves all the credit here," Robinson said.
"Certainly, she may have been inspired to some extent by her father, but this was her doing."
Though O'Keefe described himself as a progressive radical, not a conservative, he said he targeted ACORN for the same reasons that the political right does: its massive voter registration drives that turn out poor African Americans and Latinos to cast ballots against Republicans.
"Politicians are getting elected single-handedly due to this organization," he said. "No one was holding this organization accountable. No one in the media is putting pressure on them. We wanted to do a stunt and see what we could find."
In the Baltimore office, O'Keefe said he would employ 13-year-old girls as sex workers "and they didn't care at all."
"We knew then that this would be historic. We were sitting in a traffic jam for two hours trying to get out of Baltimore, listening to audio. We were shocked and amazed."