James O’Keefe, the activist filmmaker who achieved sudden fame for a series of undercover videos recording ACORN workers, has repeatedly said that he is “absolutely independent” and received no outside funding to make his films.
But the Voice has learned that O’Keefe, in fact, has had heavyweight conservative backers who funded the young filmmaker as recently as a few months before his ACORN films were made.
The ACORN videos are actually just the latest of several films O’Keefe has produced and uploaded to YouTube. An earlier film posted in February, “Taxpayers Clearing House” featured nonwhite, working class people being duped by O’Keefe, who led them to believe they had won money in a sweepstakes.
That video was produced with the help of a grant — said to be about $30,000 [Thiel’s spokesman says closer to $10,000 — see update] — from Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal and an early investor in Facebook — an investment which made him a billionaire. Thiel is one of Silicon Valley’s more interesting figures: a gay man (according to Gawker) who has railed against the evils of “multiculturalism.” He lives in San Francisco and today runs a hedge fund.
O’Keefe is now well known as the young man who dressed up as a pimp with a colleague, Townhall.com blogger Hannah Giles, who was dressed like a prostitute. The pair traveled around the country, seeking advice from ACORN workers about how to hide prostitution money for tax purposes. At five of the offices they visited, ACORN workers gave such advice while O’Keefe’s hidden camera was rolling. The videos have cost ACORN the support of Congress, the U.S. Census and the White House, and the organization stands to lose tens of millions of dollars in government grants.
O’Keefe, meanwhile, has repeatedly claimed to be financially independent. In an interview with the New York Post shortly after the ACORN videos hit the Internet, O’Keefe claimed to be “absolutely independent.” Giles said she had “drained my entire savings” to spend the summer making the undercover videos. O’Keefe estimated his budget at $1,300, and said that Giles had paid for her own plane ticket to California. The couple said they lived off of Power Bars and Subway sandwiches for two months.
But O’Keefe turns out to have a substantial history of being funded by conservative figures.
In February, a video called “Taxpayers Clearing House” was posted to YouTube. In it, O’Keefe and others drive around in a van with a logo on the side that looks like the “Publishers Clearing House” vehicle known for showing up and surprising sweepstakes winners with oversized checks. In O’Keefe’s video, working class Blacks are shown jumping up and down in excitement — until they learn that O’Keefe is actually delivering a bill for $28,000, their share of the federal banks bailout.
O’Keefe told a friend, Liz Farkas, that he had approached Thiel with the idea for the video, and had walked away with “approximately $30,000” to produce it.
Farkas told the New York Times this week that she and O’Keefe, who met at Rutgers University, clashed over publishing incomplete transcripts from another sting involving an abortion provider.
Through a representative, Peter Thiel confirmed that he had funded “Taxpayers Clearing House” through a “small-government group,” but denied having any involvement with the ACORN videos. The representative says Thiel first learned of the new O’Keefe videos after they hit the Internet, and having “watched them on YouTube…he shares the view that taxpayer money should not promote human trafficking.”
Thiel, who co-runs the Founders Fund, is a hedge fund manager, web entrepreneur and venture capitalist worth $1.2 billion. Fortune magazine referred to him as the “don” of “the Pay Pal Mafia.” Thiel is also co-author of The Diversity Myth: ‘Multiculturalism’ and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford. He was also co-founding editor of the conservative Stanford Review and was a member of the Federalist Society, the conservative legal circle that has included Clarence Thomas, Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia.
“Is the new consciousness about race, gender, and sexual preference really the antidote to America’s problems or a cause of them?” Thiel’s book asks in its introduction. Another representative quote: “Multiculturalists like thinking of themselves as victims far too much to want to end their victimization. They need their imaginary oppressors to give their lives meaning.”
Thiel’s book does not spare homosexuality. “Much [homosexual] behavior is being conducted in public, for the express purpose of shocking and offending others. The shock is then called ‘homophobia’ and is used as evidence of the oppression and victimization of homosexuals.” The book (published in 1995) argues against Stanford instituting domestic partner benefits, complaining “even in purely economic terms, the costs are substantial…The end result is something of a random scrambling of people into ‘relationships,’ all claiming the right to live off of everyone else.”
Though Thiel denies directly funding O’Keefe’s latest videos, Thiel may have made them financially possible anyway. O’Keefe has, in the past, used support from one project to fuel another.
O’Keefe is a former member of the Leadership Institute, the conservative think tank that has turned out such graduates as Bush strategist Karl Rove, Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist, and “Talon News” fake White House blogger Jeff Gannon (real name: James Dale Guckert). The Institute has been involved in setting up conservative newspapers at colleges across the country, and gave O’Keefe a $500 “Balance in Media” grant to begin the Rutgers Centurion in 2005.
On his personal blog (quoted at Daily Kos, O’Keefe has taken the original link down), O’Keefe thanks “LI” for a $4,000 monitor to help him make his movies.
In the same way O’Keefe used equipment from the Leadership Institute to make his future films, he may have made use of Thiel’s cash infusion for future projects, too. The “Taxpayers Clearing House” video that Thiel’s money made possible was posted just a few months before O’Keefe and Giles set off on their summer adventure. The multiple ACORN videos were shot and produced over the course of more than two months, in San Diego, San Bernardino, Brooklyn, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. (plus an unknown number of other cities, like Philadelphia, where O’Keefe attempted to shoot but the sting failed).
O’Keefe declined to be interviewed by phone for this article, and did not respond to e-mailed questions. But he has not publicly explained how the help he’s received from either the Leadership Institute or from Peter Thiel has influenced his filmmaking — or how they may have made a summer traveling around the country for undercover stings possible.
UPDATE: Thiel’s spokesman, James O’Neill, disputes Farkas’ estimate of $30,000, saying that Thiel’s contribution was only “about $10,000.”