September 27, 2009

Imagine that. As I thought, "independent" ACORN filmmaker James O'Keefe has a right-wing sugar daddy - Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal. Via the Village Voice:

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's "Valleywag") 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, 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."

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