NEW ORLEANS -- Four days before James O'Keefe was charged in a plot to tamper with the office phones of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, the conservative activist promised his audience at a luncheon they would be hearing about a project he was working on in New Orleans.
O'Keefe wouldn't elaborate on the nature of his plans, according to people who heard his speech at the luncheon held by the conservative Pelican Institute last Thursday in New Orleans.
"He just sort of alluded to the fact that we would all find out real soon. And we did," said Audra Shay, a Mandeville resident and chairwoman of the Young Republican National Federation.
Democrats are calling it "Louisiana Watergate," but neither the FBI nor federal prosecutors are saying what O'Keefe and three other young conservative activists were up to when they were arrested Monday.
Authorities said two of the defendants posed as telephone repairmen in hard hats, fluorescent vests and tool belts and asked to see the phones at Landrieu's office; one of them had a tiny camera in his helmet. A third man is alleged to have waited outside in a car with a listening device to pick up transmissions. O'Keefe used his cell phone to try to capture video of the scene inside, authorities said.
During the think tank's luncheon last week, audience members peppered O'Keefe with questions about Landrieu, but the featured speaker didn't indicate that she was a target of his project, said Robin Edwards, a Baton Rouge resident and co-founder of the Louisiana Tea Party Federation.
"He just said he had a project going in New Orleans, but he wouldn't say what it was," Edwards said. "I figured it had something to do with ACORN."
Last year, O'Keefe, a 25-year-old self-described investigative journalist, posed as a pimp in the hidden-camera videos that embarrassed the community organizing group ACORN.
Michael Madigan, O'Keefe's lawyer, said Wednesday that his client was not trying to wiretap or interfere with Landrieu's phones, but he would not explain why O'Keefe was there. He also would not say whether O'Keefe was working for someone or was on his own.
"The truth will come out," said Madigan, a Washington lawyer who represented Sen. Howard Baker, the Republican who famously asked during the Watergate investigation, "What did the President know and when did he know it?"
The incident occurred a month after Landrieu announced her support for the Senate health care bill. As the vote neared, conservatives complained they were unable to register protests at her offices because their calls were referred to voice mail boxes that often were full.
"We did hear that complaint, but absolutely at no time did Sen. Landrieu or her staff intentionally avoid phone calls related to health care or any other topic," Landrieu spokesman Aaron Saunders said Wednesday.
All four men were charged with entering federal property under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, which carries up to 10 years in prison. They were not charged with wiretapping.
Meanwhile, the conservatives who once made O'Keefe their hero for his hidden-camera expose of ACORN distanced themselves from his latest project.
Hannah Giles -- who posed as a prostitute for the sting videos, in which ACORN staffers appeared to offer illegal tax advice and support the misuse of public funds -- said she was shocked when she heard about O'Keefe's arrest.
"I am well aware that following the law is an integral part of being a good investigative journalist," Giles said in a statement. "I take that responsibility and accountability very seriously. I certainly hope these reports are untrue."
Fox News' Glenn Beck, who made O'Keefe's ACORN expose a national phenomenon by championing the videos, said on his radio show that if the allegations against O'Keefe are true, the young man crossed the line.
"You don't do anything illegal. That's Watergate territory. You just don't do that," Beck said. "But besides that, I don't even think you go dressed up. I mean, it's a senator. For the love of Pete, it's a senator."
All four defendants shared an interest in conservative politics and commentary.
O'Keefe and Joseph Basel, 24, formed their own conservative publications on their college campuses -- O'Keefe at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Basel at the University of Minnesota-Morris.
"Joe had a lot of ideas," said Kim Ukura, who founded The Counterweight with Basel and another student in 2005. "He was really excited about the things he wanted to do. He was really passionate about his beliefs, I guess."
A third defendant, Stan Dai, 24, was editor of George Washington University's conservative paper as an undergraduate there. He later was an assistant director of a program funded by federal intelligence agencies that taught students at Trinity Washington University about careers in intelligence, according to university president Patricia McGuire. He left the post in October 2008.
The program was part of a national effort following the Sept. 11 attacks to interest students at liberal arts colleges in careers as spies. McGuire said Dai was an administrator and that the program did not teach spy craft.
The fourth man, Robert Flanagan, 24, wrote for the blog of the Pelican Institute, which is based in New Orleans. Flanagan is the only one of the four from Louisiana. His father is the acting federal prosecutor for western Louisiana.
Pelican Institute President Kevin Kane said Wednesday that he had no idea what happened at Landrieu's office or what the four were doing there.
O'Keefe's ACORN videos were first posted on biggovernment.com, run by conservative Andrew Breitbart, and O'Keefe has been a paid contributor to the site. But in an e-mail, Breitbart denied any prior knowledge of, or connection to, the Landrieu incident.
Landrieu, who was in Washington at the time, called the plot "unsettling" for her and her staff.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan said Republicans once praised O'Keefe as an American hero, "yet today, in light of these deplorable and illegal attacks on the office of a United States senator by their champion, Republicans have not offered a single iota of disgust, a whisper of indignation or even a hint of outrage."
O'Keefe, Basel and Dai would not comment when they went to court Wednesday for pretrial matters. Flanagan was not with them. All four are free on $10,000 bail. They are due back in court Feb. 12.
O'Keefe's father, James O'Keefe Jr. of Westwood, N.J., said he hadn't spoken to his son since his arrest but added: "I know my son. My son wouldn't attempt anything illegal."