Texas `sex, lies and videotape’ casts pall of ‘nervous introspection’ on the Lege

Good morning Austin:

A year ago, Deadline Hollywood reported:

HBO has put in development God Save Texas, a drama series project written by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda And The Road To 9/11) and executive produced by X-Men producer Lauren Shuler Donner. It centers on an idealistic cowboy who, looking to save his ranch and marriage, tries to get elected to the Texas Legislature, where he becomes the target of the powerful energy lobby and learns how to survive in the crazy, brutal world of Texas politics.

The news created some buzz, and allowed members of the Legislature to contemplate what star or superstar or veteran character actor might do justice to them.

From his Facebook page:

Jonathan Stickland I hope someone good plays me at least, haha!
June 16, 2014 at 4:33pm · Like · 22

Scott Byington I’d watch this:
Jack Black as Jonathan Stickland…
(I ♡ JB, so I mean this in a good way : )
June 17, 2014 at 10:20am · Like

jackblack

Jack Black in the true Texas story, Bernie.

Of course, my guess is that there are many God-fearing, freedom-loving, civic-minded Texans who watch the Texas House on TV and think that it is the Jonathan Stickland Show – now in its second season and, really, even better than the first.

Rep. Jonathan Stickland, wearing a gun lapel pin, smiles during debate of HB 910, an open carry bill, in the House Chamber at the Capitol on Friday April 17. (Photo by Jay Janner)

Rep. Jonathan Stickland, wearing a gun lapel pin, smiles during debate of HB 910, an open carry bill, in the House Chamber at the Capitol on Friday April 17.
(Photo by Jay Janner)

 

Earlier this week, the Texas Observer’s Christopher Hooks did a compendium of this session’s best episodes, which was quite excellent, even if his preface carried a rather ungrateful edge:

In a session replete with clown shows—Kory Watkins’ annexation of state Rep. Poncho Nevarez’s office seems so distant now that it feels as part of a lost childhood, like a Madeleine cake—Stickland has delivered over and over again, one of the state’s most unbeatable and unproductive generators of tomfoolery. He’s underappreciated, though. Thanks to the intense resentment he’s garnered from his fellow legislators and lege-watchers, people aren’t giving him enough credit as a wholly unique practitioner of Lege performance art.

In any case, by far my favorite scene was this:

When an open carry bill finally came up for a vote in the House, Stickland was incensed. The bill required a license to carry a gun in public. He had planned for months to offer an amendment to nuke the gun license.

But House leadership wouldn’t recognize his amendment, claiming it wasn’t germane to the bill, a procedural requirement. Was it really, or were the guys in charge kicking Stickland in the shins? Stickland took to the mic to protest.

He railed against House leadership in a 10-minute angry tirade, asking state Rep. Dennis Bonnen (R-Angleton), manning the House dais, why he had been railroaded all session long. In one beautiful moment, he was asked by Bonnen to bring his objections to the front of the House, to discuss them with the parliamentarian. His answer: “How has that worked out for me so far?”

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 12.07.20 AM

But at one particularly climactic moment in his speech—essentially, Stickland saying, “No, YOU’RE out of order!”—the tide turned in Stickland’s favor. Cheering and applause could suddenly be heard in the House. It was like a movie.

But it wasn’t from the legislators. It was from elementary school kids in the gallery, during a Capitol tour. With presumably no idea what the fight was about, they found themselves moved solely by Stickland’s passion. Finally, somebody who speaks his language.

That is a priceless Frank Capra/Preston Sturges moment.

But, it seemed, everyone else in the Legislature but Stickland would have to wait on Lawrence Wright and HBO for their chance at anything more than a cameo.

Until now, with news this week that more than a few of them may find themselves starring in a video drama in which they won’t have to worry about who will play them. They will be playing themselves.

From Tim Eaton in yesterday’s American-Statesman:

Using both hand-held and hidden recording devices, a local nonprofit has amassed about 800 hours of video footage of state lawmakers and lobbyists that the group’s leaders said Tuesday will be released to show the hypocrisy and bad behavior they found in and around the Texas Capitol.

The footage — none of which has been released — was recorded over the past six months with hand-held video recorders, detachable lens cameras and hidden recording devices, said Jon Beria, a spokesman for the Austin-based American Phoenix Foundation. The group’s “citizen journalists” recorded members of the Legislature at the Capitol as well as at bars and restaurants around Austin, he said.

The group will document sex, violence and corruption among lawmakers and lobbyists when its recordings are released, Beria said.

“With 800 hours, we can afford to show these people for what they really are,” Beria told the American-Statesman.

Beria refused to detail which lawmakers will be highlighted — or exactly what the footage will show — when the pieces emerge in the coming weeks.

Uh oh.

sexlies

From Bob Garrett’s report for the Dallas Morning News:

The American Phoenix Foundation hired 16 people to confront and tape lawmakers in and around the Texas Capitol, said John Beria.

“We wanted to send a team down to Austin that would document some of the moral failings and hypocrisy of some of the legislators and lobbyists — and Austin culture in general,” Beria said. “Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, whatever — it doesn’t matter what label they wear. We just want to find the hypocrites.”

Austin culture in general?

Double uh oh.

That means no one is safe.

More from Garrett:

Foundation spokesman Beria said the undercover investigators have amassed more than 800 hours of videotape, including scenes showing at least one senator embracing a female lobbyist.

Beria, asked if the investigation mainly was about lawmakers’ sex lives, replied, “I wish. … It involves sleazy behavior and people talking about things they have done.”

Originally, Beria said, the idea was to expose “these guys who run as one thing and then they go and turn out to be another.”

He said the project was not designed to discredit House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio. Nor did chief Straus critic Tim Dunn, a Midland oilman, contribute money to pay for the project, which was entirely funded by the foundation, Beria said. He said it was “unfortunate” many House members assumed the effort was a dump-Straus operation.

“In fact, it’s more interesting to show some of the extreme conservatives who run as super family values and then get down to Austin and have a girlfriend or two,” he said.

Hmm. Adultery and gluttony.

From Eaton:

The American Phoenix Foundation doesn’t endorse one particular political persuasion, Beria said. Rather, the group is “anti-incumbent” and dedicated to exposing public officials who are too cozy with lobbyists and speak one way on the campaign trail but act differently when they come to the Capitol, he said.

But the group’s CEO, Joe Basel, is a partner in a political consulting firm, C3 Strategies, that has done work for some of the most conservative members of the Legislature, including Sens. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, and Konni Burton, R-Colleyville

From Edgar Walter and Jay Root at the Texas Tribune:

Beria, the spokesman for Basel’s group, said the plan was to release the video from Austin in vignettes, as opposed to a long documentary.

“It will be small releases, and it will be more focused that way,” he said. “The concern there was it would be tough for people to sit through that much bad behavior.” 

From David Saleh Rauf and Lauren McGaughy  at the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle, who broke the story:

 Beria confirmed the “visionary” behind the program to collect secret footage of state lawmakers is Joseph Basel, the CEO of C3 Strategies, an Austin-based consulting firm that worked on the campaigns of state Sens. Don Huffines, R-Dallas, Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, and Konni Burton, R-Fort Worth.

Basel said none of the taping was done through C3, and that his consulting clients were not involved in any way.

‘Sleazy campaign tactic’

In 2010, a federal judge sentenced Basel and fellow activist James O’Keefe to probation and community service after they pleaded guilty to entering the New Orleans offices of then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu under false pretenses.

 Joseph Basel waits for a taxi cab after being released from the St. Bernard Parish jail in Chalmette, La., Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010.. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Joseph Basel waits for a taxi cab after being released from the St. Bernard Parish jail in Chalmette, La., Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2010.. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

O’Keefe was the mastermind behind the 2009 secret taping at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN. During the exchange, ACORN staffers appeared to offer O’Keefe and Hannah Basel – masquerading as a pimp and prostitute – advice on tax evasion.

(note: She was then Hannah Giles, but she has since married Joe Basel.)

hannahgiles

Both Basels helped found the American Phoenix Foundation.

From Ross Ramsey at the Texas Tribune:

Texas lawmakers are chattering about sketchily identified political operators who have been surreptitiously recording conversations with officeholders in an attempt to embarrass them or reveal corrupt, unscrupulous or illegal activity.

Kind of makes you wonder what they found, right?

Legislators, who have complained to state police, are clearly peeved at the emergence of what they see as a political gotcha game that could be tied to next year’s elections. The American Phoenix Foundation, which employs the people doing this, is a nonprofit that is not required to reveal the names of its donors or how much they gave — in part because the Legislature has been unable to force that kind of disclosure.

That is standard fare in American politics right now: Political contributions to candidates and political action committees must be disclosed. “Dark money” transactions to certain types of politically active nonprofit organizations do not.

By the time this particular tale has fully unfolded, we will know a lot about the people who carried the cameras and microphones, asked questions, and captured video and audio of state officeholders. We might learn some salacious things about some of those legislators and their ethics and their sex lives — and probably about their propensity to say dumb things to strangers bearing cameras and microphones.

But we won’t know who is really behind all of this, about who is paying for it and why. The stuff on the ground is interesting, but it’s the shiny object diverting attention from the actual political players and their motives.

It appears that, because it had become obvious to members that they were being tracked and surreptitiously taped – please speak into my Texas lapel pin – the story leaked out ahead of schedule, and that the timing of the sting was not meant to affect the session, now hurtling toward its June 1 conclusion,  but the 2016 legislative elections, and especially the all-important, tantamount-to-election, Republican primary in March of next year.

From an e-mail I received yesterday from Basel:

Our timeline was moved up on this, but we still have to do the proper due diligence, so our plan isn’t to release soon. It will still be weeks/months before we’re ready to release content.

Also, Basel said James O’Keefe has no role in this project:

James has nothing to do with anything the American Phoenix Foundation has ever done.
Hannah created and designed the ACORN project. And was a founder of our Foundation.
okeefe O'Keefe1

That’s right, said Daniel Pollock, spokesman for O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, in an email:

Neither James O’Keefe nor Project Veritas have any connection to the American Phoenix Foundation or their recent investigations of members of the Texas Legislature.
So, now the waiting begins.
The only thing worse, at least for some legislators, than seeing the videos is waiting to see them, not knowing precisely what’s in them.
The House Republican Caucus met to talk about it yesterday
I texted a few lawmakers late yesterday asking whether there was much angst or anger about the news.

Here are three responses:

– More angst than anger.

Disgust. It’s hard to do what we do and get beat up for not being perfect.

As MQS says. Nervous introspection. For sure.

Well, yes, what about Michael Quinn Sullivan? Is he behind this?

Apparently not.

When Tim Eaton emailed MQS  to ask if he knew anything about the project or who was financing  it, he replied that all he knew was what he read in news accounts.

But, he added ominously, “Know of Joe Basel and his work. Whoever he has in his sights is probably in for a really bad time ahead.””

Who is Joe Basel?

His first brush with fame was the arrest with O’Keefe in New Orleans.

But he also left a mark before that as a student at the University of Minnesota-Morris.

As Kevin Hoffman in the Minneapolis City Pages, wrote following the Louisiana arrest:

Soon after the scandal broke, it emerged that one of the four Teabuggers was local boy Joe Basel, a product of the University of Minnesota-Morris, where he cut his teeth as a conservative agitator by founding the conservative paper The Counterweight as well as plastering the campus with posters that said “End Racism & Sexism Now:  Kill all White Males,” a move so disruptive that the campus had to hold a racial unity pow-wow, during which Basel quoted gangsta rap lyrics as an example of liberal orthodoxy, which caused the Black Student Union to walk out in disgust.

Giles and Basel were featured in a 2010 story in Playboy – Rogues of K Street: confessions of a Tea Party consultant. A short excerpt:

Enter James O’Keefe, Stan Dai and Joe Basel, who were arrested this past January for allegedly plotting to tamper with Democratic senator Mary Landrieu’s office in New Orleans. Their arrest touched a nerve in the Tea Party community. Put in context, they are more like Tyler Durden than G. Gordon Liddy. MSNBC called it “Watergate Jr.” Basel called it one of his weaker pranks.

They don’t seem to mind getting busted and are truly willing to take one for the team. They travel the country, causing mayhem, giving speeches and crashing with wealthy benefactors. Saul Alinsky is theirhero. They are as talented at destroying liberal institutions as they are at picking up cougars. I don’t mean 30-year-old mothers; I’m talking about tired 50-year-olds. With wrinkles.

The last time I caught up with Basel he was carrying a garbage bag full of dirty laundry through the airport because he hadn’t been home in months. When fans show up to take a picture with him, he pulls out the crumpled federal bond papers that give him permission to travel. Basel, Dai and O’Keefe don’t work for the Tea Party, and some of their projects may not win Tea Party candidates more votes. But because of shared interests they’ve won the hearts of Tea Party activists and conservative cougars everywhere.

I asked Basel why he does it. “I have a storied history of f—— with the power structure,” he says. “I get a high from exposing fraudsters. I love pushing the envelope and exposing the truth.”

Basel’s wingman, Stan Dai, is equally disarming. Except Dai servedas an operations officer in a Department of Defense irregular-warfare fellowship program and may or may not have trained with the Israel Defense Forces. But Dai is a 24-year-old immigrant from China–he’s not exactly Jonathan Pollard. O’Keefe doesn’t have much to say. What he lacks in social skills he makes up for in creative genius and enormous balls.

Before Election Day there will be more stings. If you are part of a large organization with a vested interest in the Obama administration’s success, be afraid.

Along the way, he and Giles married, settled in Texas

Then, as recounted in a March 2014 Lobby Watch report from Citizens for Public Justice:

Late in the last decade a small cadre of young conservatives from the East Coast and Midwest adoptedcolorful, merry-prankster media tactics reminiscent of 20th Century leftist organizers Saul Alinsky and Abbie Hoffman. A disproportionate number of these young activists gravitated to the monster Red State of Texas. That’s where Joseph and Hannah Basel now appear to be transitioning into lucrative careers as political consultants.

CPJ reported that Don Huffines paid almost $250,000 to the Basels’ C3 Strategies in his successful primary campaign against Sen. John Carona:

C3’s first reported state campaign —for Huffines — was a doozy. The Carona-Huffines showdown was Texas’ most expensive 2014 legislative primary.

After advertising costs, the Huffines campaign’s top payouts went to C3 for consulting and canvassing. On the eve of the primary, the Basels had collected 11 cents of every dollar that Huffines spent.

Whether the Basel connection to the undercover videos will be good or bad for their consulting business remains to be seen.

Will the members of the Legislature circle the wagons to protect themselves and the institution from this brazen infiltration of their shared space and, however much they may otherwise fight with one another, ultimate sense of comity and mutual interest?
Or will it be every man and woman for his or herself?
Will members who hired the Basels be seen as having played a part in encouraging this breach of of decorum, in what appears to be a serious upping the ante in the campaign to rid the Legislature of Republicans in Name Only?
As a blog called Texas Conservative Reality, wrote yesterday:
The media this week revealed a campaign by a shady, dark money funded entity to stalk, entrap and film members of the legislature. The stories revealed that this effort was operated and funded by a group with close ties to Senators Huffines, Kolkhorst and Burton.
Burton, who won the Tarrant County seat vacated by Sen. Wendy Davis when she made her unsuccessful run for governor, was testy and defensive in her interaction with reporters after the story broke.

Her office later issued this statement from the senator:

There have been a lot of stories in the media about a group called C3 Consulting and the American Phoenix Foundation. I found out about their recent activities at the same time my fellow Legislators did. While my campaign and several others in the Legislature contracted with C3 as a a get out the vote blockwalking vendor, I am not familiar with Mr. Basel or his staff, nor has he ever served as a “consultant” with my campaign. Campaigns often use many vendors to execute their goals. In no way am I familiar with the activities of C3 in recent months, nor am I familiar with the American Phoenix Foundation. I hope this can clear up any confusion.
Life was simpler when the target of these “merry pranksters” was Battleground Texas and the Wendy Davis campaign, as it was for O’Keefe in the last election cycle in Texas. But now it appears that a prime target are Republicans who stray from their Tea Party commitments.
Last January I wrote:
O’Keefe, who first drew national attention for the 2009 undercover videos that brought down the community organization ACORN, has sought to ensnare Battleground in his Web videos, and Battleground has sought to keep 10,000 volunteers from saying or doing anything that might play into O’Keefe’s hands.

On Thursday, O’Keefe released his latest undercover video, which shows Battleground Texas volunteers discussing whether Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott’s disability will affect the Republican’s campaign for governor.

It is what O’Keefe characterizes as “guerrilla citizen journalism,” founded on the precepts of Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” which is the bible for modern community organizing, though a seemingly incongruous choice as a guiding text for a hero on the right. (Newt Gingrich, among others, has described former community organizer Barack Obama as a “Saul Alinsky radical.”)

“I don’t necessarily identify myself as a conservative,” O’Keefe told the American-Statesman, adding that “conservative” aptly describes a distrust of government power that he believes all journalists should share.

“Alinsky is about restoring power to the people and taking it away from the haves, the establishment,” said O’Keefe, quoting a favorite bit of Alinsky wisdom: “The basic tactic in warfare against the haves is a mass political jujitsu: the have-nots do not rigidly oppose the haves, but yield in such planned and skilled ways that the superior strength of the haves becomes their undoing.”

To Jenn Brown, Battleground’s executive director, what O’Keefe is up to is nothing but straight-up right-wing agitprop — a mission to scuttle her organization’s efforts to register new voters and bolster Democrats’ chances in a state with notoriously low electoral participation.

“This is part of the Republican strategy,” Brown said. “He’s one of them.”

I subsequently took a closer look at the raw footage – which Project Veritas released – and wrote about the very selective editing they used to produce their video, which, among other things, suggested that Democrats at a Travis County meting were laughing at Greg Abbott’s being in a wheelchair, when that wasn’t the case.

But, the most egregious edit of all is the placement of the hacking laugh. In the video released by O’Keefe, it comes when the “old lady” says “he’s in a wheelchair.” But in the raw footage, it comes five seconds later, with the exchange about Abbott’s hair.

In other words, the headline on O’Keefe’s release — which reads “Breaking News Video: Wendy Davis Supporters/BGTX Mock Greg Abbott’s Disability” — would have better read, “Breaking News Video: Wendy Davis Supporters/BGTX Mock Greg Abbott’s Hair.”

Now, remember, this is O’Keefe, not Basel, and I don’t know whether Basel and company will be any more scrupulous than O’Keefe about fairly portraying what it is they’ve got.

But, even if they are very scrupulous, one would think that, especially for liberty-minded Texans who worry about drones, and NSA data collection, and red-light cameras, there would be something unsettling about what amounts to this round-the-clock surreptitious surveillance, even if the those conducing the surveillance aren’t working for the government, and even if those being surveilled are public servants.

For $7.200 a year do they really surrender all right to privacy?

As a reporter, I prefer things to be on the record, but it is very useful that things aren’t always on the record, A world in which every conversation that every politician has – except maybe in the privacy of their own home, and even then, who knows – has to be conducted with the forethought that it could end up being part of a video for all to see, is kind of creepy and depressing, suggesting the imposition of a kind of Big Brother, enforced, round-the-clock political correctness.

And the suggestion that if you never do or say anything wrong you have nothing to worry about seems to me simply too glib.

Of course, I haven’t seen the videos.

I talked about this with Rep. David Simpson, R-Longview, last night, and this is a little of what he had to say.

I believe in the First Amendment. I do hope – in your profession and mine – all will be done decently and with honor. I hate hypocrisy. I hope if someone’s joking or something, that that’s not taken out of context. In both professional or casual journalism, we can just take a portion of a quote and put it with other quotes and it can become  almost a complete falsehood.

So I support the use of the First Amendment to hold public officials accountable. I just hope that it will be done with the same ethics that I suspect they are seeking to have restored in political office.

I welcome people, at least I try to – Psalm 141 – when they bring truth to me that exposes an inconsistency or hypocrisy because I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I know I can be, except for the grace of God.

The other side is too that we shouldn’t have as much to fear if we are real trying to be honest and not hypocritical and not two-faced. I do think that when people to get too defensive, I start to think of Shakespeare – “Methinks thee protest too much” – and I start to wonder.

Bill to legalize marijuana advances

Meanwhile, the primary reason I was talking with Simpson last night was because his legislation, House Bill 2165, to legalize marijuana, passed the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee earlier in the evening on a 5-to-2 vote. While the new law would continue to make it illegal to sell marijuana to minors, use of the drug by minors would be left to parental discretion.

“It restricts the sale to minors and leaves the responsibility with parents, which is where it should be,” Simpson said. He continued:

Now we can continue the discussion with other members and hopefully the full House. I just try to do what’s right and trust the consequences with the Lord, and so far we’ve got a lot farther than a lot of people thought, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to discuss it with the members of the Calendars Committee, and hopefully with members of the full House. Of course that’s just half the Legislature, and then, of course, its got to go to the governor.

Simpson said he did talk recently to Governor Abbott about his bill.

I’m hopeful that the governor’s more and more open to the idea. He said he didn’t see it passing this session. To me, that left the door open, and I want to give him an opportunity to say “no.” He said he wanted to expand liberty, and I think open carry of plants a is lot simpler than open carry of guns and bullets on a hip.

 

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