The man called “Mohammed” presented himself as the son of a Middle Eastern oil magnate, but he was an actor hired to embarrass two Hollywood celebrities.
He secretly recorded Mariel Hemingway and Ed Begley Jr. at a lunch meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel. They were there to support a friend making a documentary about the dangers of fracking, a controversial mining technique used to extract natural gas.
The purported oilman was working for James O’Keefe, the conservative activist with a track record of using deception and hidden cameras to discredit liberal targets.
The sting was similar to one staged by O’Keefe against National Public Radio in 2011, which led to the resignation of its CEO, after a top executive was surreptitiously recorded in a meeting with two men posing as potential donors from a Muslim Brotherhood front group.
The difference in this case is that Hemingway and Begley were not looking to raise a dime and have no stake in the proposed fracking documentary. They were there at the request of director Josh Tickell, a liberal filmmaker whose past work has focused on biofuels and the BP oil spill.
Hemingway, who is also an author and environmental and fitness advocate, was immediately suspicious, noting that the man was wearing cheap pants and shoes. “That was the most ridiculous meeting I’ve ever been a part of,” she told me. “He was trying to speak broken English in his bad-actor way…I was told I’d been vetted by some prince and I was an approved celebrity that could be brought to a meeting.”
Begley, a longtime environmentalist who owns a wind turbine and relies on a bike and electric car, told me he was so wary of the gathering that “I was actually looking for something that might be a camera when they came in.” He noticed that “Mohammed” was wearing a watch with no hands or digital display that must have contained the camera.
“I wasn’t there to take any money. I was there to support a friend…I made the huge mistake of going to the meeting,” Begley says.
O’Keefe plans to unveil the 18-minute video Wednesday at the Cannes Flim Festival, billing it “exposing high-level Hollywood environmentalists plotting to end U.S. energy independence with a film funded by foreign oil investors.”
According to the grainy footage from the March 28 meeting, Hemingway and Begley were prompted to agree with two requests by the purported tycoon from Dubai: that they would not reveal that he was providing $4.5 million for the film, and that they understood that he felt this would help the Mideast oil business because continued fracking of natural could wean the United States off oil imports.
Hemingway says she played along to avoid ruining things for her friend Tickell. “I was polite because I knew it meant so much to Josh,” she recalls. “I didn’t go after him and say ‘you’re a fraud.’”
In an on-camera Fox News interview Tuesday night, Hemingway criticized O’Keefe’s tactics, saying he purports to expose dishonesty yet sets up a taped meeting with an impersonator: “That’s not dishonest?”
Still, the video is likely to be embarrassing to the two movie stars because they were duped into playing along with the men portraying “Mohammed” and two of his colleagues. At the end of the hourlong lunch in the hotel’s Polo Lounge, both Hemingway and Begley were asked to pose for iPhone pictures with the man, which may have been an attempt to show they were consenting to the recording of the session.
“Mohammed said a lot of crazy stuff, like ‘I have three wives,’” Tickell recalls. Hemingway and Begley say they could barely understand him.
Tickell, who has won a Sundance award and whose movie “Fuel” was screened at the Obama White House, had been put in touch with Mohammed by a middleman who was in on O’Keefe’s scheme.
“The due diligence should have been a lot deeper on our part,” Tickell told me. “We got punked.”
Tickell says he and his wife, who recently gave birth, decided to make the film after moving to a California town and discovering that fracking was taking place. He told me he didn’t care about the bogus oilman’s motivation for providing financing because “as long as we have creative control of our film, money is money.” Begley and Hemingway, who declined any compensation for helping him, “really came as a favor to us to make us look legitimate,” Tickell says.
A spokesman for Tickell, Jonathan Franks, adds: “We flat out deny any implication of impropriety. This tape reflects a very preliminary meeting with a potential investor … Clearly a necessary part of the due diligence process would have been to examine the motives of any potential investor, but we flat out reject as flawed the notion being of Middle Eastern origin necessarily disqualifies one as an investor.”
O’Keefe, whose organization is called Project Veritas, has apparently been using the footage to raise money.
O’Keefe first gained national attention in 2009 with a hidden-camera sting against ACORN workers that forced the community organizing group to close most of its offices.
The following year, O’Keefe was arrested in the office of Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to three years’ probation.
In the NPR sting, the network’s senior vice president, Ron Schiller, was caught on tape trashing Tea Party members as “Islamophobic,” “xenophobic,” and “seriously racist” folks who speak for “gun-toting” America. He thought he was talking to two wealthy Muslims who were potential NPR donors.
In a 2011 interview, O’Keefe told me he is a “citizen journalist” and “the institutions I’ve gone after are the institutions that investigative reporters have refused to investigate.” He justified the lying involved in the stings by calling it “a sort of guerrilla theater… I go after public officials on the job. I feel it’s moral, ethical, and necessary.”
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.