Some Advocacy Nonprofits Join Forces to ‘Watch Each Others’ Backs’
members, have already voted
to end federal support for NPR
and other public broadcasters,
as well as to Planned Parenthood—and in both cases, the
undercover videos gave them
Estelle Rogers, director of advocacy at Project Vote, a group
that works to persuade more
poor people and minorities to go
to the polls, says nonprofit advocates are worried about more
than just money.
For example, Darrell Issa, a
California Republican who was
harshly critical of Acorn in the
last Congress, has now ascended to the post of chairman of the
House oversight committee and
has said he intends to pursue
an ambitious agenda of hearings and investigations.
“When you couple that kind of
combative stance with the dirty
tricks we see from time to time,
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“The short mission is, We
can’t let Acorn happen
again,” says Estelle Rogers,
of Project Vote.
“These are not one-off
events,” says Gara
LaMarche, of Atlantic
“They can do
illegal activities. Although the
recordings were later found to
be edited in a misleading way,
they fueled a move by Congress
to withdraw all federal money
from the group.
Acorn, also beset by management problems, has since dissolved.
Following that controversy,
some liberal advocacy orga-
nizations “banded together in
loose affiliations to watch each
other’s backs,” Ms. Rogers says.
“The short mission is, We can’t
let Acorn happen again.”
Project Vote, which worked
with Acorn on voter-registration
activities, was among 26 groups
that jumped to the defense of
Planned Parenthood last month
when an antiabortion group,
Live Action, released undercov-
er videos showing clinic work-
ers in different cities talking to
someone posing as a pimp seek-
ing services for underage immi-
grant sex workers.
Along with the Alliance for
Justice, Common Cause, People
for the American Way, the Sier-
ra Club, and others, it immedi-
ately signed a letter to Congress
charging that right-wing groups
were attempting to destroy an
organization offering a range of
important health and reproduc-
banks and other businesses.)
Mr. O’Keefe’s video stings
are “politically motivated,” he
adds, “but I would still consider
them to be journalism.” But Mr.
O’Keefe has a decidedly mixed
In fact, he is now on probation
for a misdemeanor conviction of
entering a federal building under false pretenses involving
an incident in the New Orleans
office of Sen. Mary Landrieu,
Democrat of Louisiana.
He has also been accused of
posting an edited version of the
it makes organizations very ner-
vous,” Ms. Rogers says. “They
can absolutely do everything
right but still be nervous.”
James O’Keefe, the conservative activist who engineered
the NPR sting, first won notoriety when he produced a series
of videos in 2009 that appeared
to show employees of Acorn providing advice to a fake prostitute and her boyfriend about
Nonprofits are not the only
victims of “gotcha” recordings.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin took a prank call last month
from someone pretending to be
David Koch, a wealthy businessman who contributes to conservative causes. Shirley Sherrod
was forced to resign from a position in the Agriculture Department last summer after a right-wing blogger posted misleading
video excerpts of a speech she
gave about race relations.
Mr. O’Keefe also released
undercover videos that he took
“It’s a reflection
of how much
of a role nonprofits
play in today’s
video of NPR’s Mr. Schiller in a
way that left out important context. However, NPR said that
even in the unedited version,
some of Mr. Schiller’s comments
“were inconsistent with our values and beliefs.”
How the NPR Scandal Unfolded
February 22: Two NPR fund raisers have lunch in Washington with people
who say they are from the Muslim Education Action Center. They are told
that center wants to give $5-million to public media.
March 3-5: NPR’s chief executive and general counsel send e-mail messages to the center’s representatives, saying they need more information
about the organization before they can discuss a gift.
March 8, morning: James O’Keefe (bottom), a videographer, releases recordings of the lunch attended by the fund raisers, Ronald Schiller (top)
and Betsy Liley. It turns out the center was a ruse.
COURTES Y OF NPR
March 8: A few hours after the recording’s release, Vivian Schiller (
middle), chief executive of NPR, releases a statement saying the remarks
Ronald Schiller made on the recording “are contrary to what NPR stands
for.” NPR puts Mr. Schiller and Ms. Liley on administration leave.
March 8, early evening: NPR’s board meets, and Ms. Schiller says she is
willing to resign.
March 8, 9:00 p.m.: NPR announces that Mr. Schiller has resigned effective immediately. He had previously planned to leave in May for a job at
the Aspen Institute, in a move unconnected to the video controversy.
COURTES Y OF NPR
March 9, 9: 30 a.m.: NPR announces that its chief executive, Ms. Schiller,
March 9, noon: News reports say that Mr. Schiller has decided not to take
the fund-raising job at the Aspen Institute.
March 10: Mr. O’Keefe releases an audio recording in which Ms. Liley discusses ways the Muslim Education Action Center can give anonymously
and avoid scrutiny from regulators.
BILL HABER/AP IMAGES
while working last spring for
the U.S. Census Bureau.
But some of the most elaborate plots have involved nonprofits, which is a testament to their
growing political importance,
especially as recipients of federal money, says Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch,
a nonprofit advocacy group.
“It’s a reflection of how much
of a role nonprofits play in today’s society, as opposed to,
They are the [specific] targets,”
Mr. O’Keefe’s NPR videos
showed Ronald Schiller, NPR’s
senior vice president for development, disparaging Republicans
and the Tea Party and saying
NPR would be better off in the
long run without federal money.
He resigned as soon as the video was released, and it became
clear that he had been speaking to two people posing as representatives of a fake Muslim
charity that had ties to an alleged terrorist front group.
Mr. O’Keefe, who declined
to be interviewed, as did Mr.
Schiller, told CNN that he was
inspired to take on NPR, which
many conservatives accuse of
liberal bias, after it fired Juan
Williams for comments he made
about Muslims on Fox News.
The Web site for Mr. O’Keefe’s
nonprofit group, Project Veritas,
portrays him as a journalistic
muckraker with a mission to
“investigate and expose corrup-
tion, dishonesty, self-dealing,
waste, fraud, and other miscon-
His critics decry what they
consider underhanded tactics
designed to undermine orga-
nizations that help low-income
and minority people, who inci-
dentally are more likely to vote
Democratic—or, in NPR’s case,
provide an independent media
But some conservatives see
Mr. O’Keefe and his associates
as “folk heroes” for helping to
put Acorn out of business, says
Matthew Vadum, senior editor at Capital Research Center,
a right-leaning philanthropy
watchdog. While Acorn helped
some people over the years, he
says, its leaders followed a leftist philosophy of “attack the system by any means necessary,”
he says. (The group often staged
confrontational protests against
Good Training Essential
That highlights a lesson for
nonprofit groups. Even if an
adversary uses questionable
tactics, an organization can be
damaged if its employees act inappropriately—and that means
good training is essential.
Planned Parenthood, for example, escaped relatively unscathed from the Live Action
videos, which some news organizations said were misleading.
The House has voted to cut off
all federal money for the group
as part of its effort to close the
budget deficit, but many lawmakers and commentators have
come to its defense.
The damage from the sting
attempts was contained because the organization’s employees are trained in how to handle
attempts to entrap them, says
Stuart Schear, Planned Parenthood’s vice president for communications.
Staff members are told that
if they have a suspicious encounter with a client or visitor,
they must report it to supervisors, who tell local authorities.
The national office in New York
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