Inside a Hollywood Hit Job: How Sting Artist James O’Keefe Tried to Set His Latest Trap – And Got Stung Himself
On Wednesday, conservative activist and controversial video sting artist James O’Keefe made an appearance in Cannes during the Film Festival with a new, secretly recorded 20-minute video that he said exposes the hypocrisy of two environmentalist documentarians and two Hollywood actors. At the end of the clip, after Josh and Rebecca Tickell, Mariel Hemingway, and Ed Begley Jr. appear to have unwittingly agreed to accept financing for an anti-fracking film from Middle East oil interests, O’Keefe claims he’s caught other allegedly altruistic actors and filmmakers in his trap, teasing a clip of a phone conversation with filmmaker Josh Fox.
But this time, O’Keefe wasn’t the only one making secret recordings. Left more than a little suspicious by years of vicious—and often surreptitious—attacks from the natural gas industry and its supporters following the premiere of his 2010 Oscar-nominated anti-fracking documentary, Gasland, and its 2012 sequel, Gasland II, Fox taped his interaction with one of O’Keefe’s minions and documented the elaborate lengths they went to entrap him.
It all started last December, when Fox began receiving emails from an unfamiliar group called Beacon International, claiming to represent overseas donors interested in funding his next anti-fracking film. Naturally, he was dubious. After scouring the Internet for information on the company and finding only a bare-bones website that “basically looked like a joke site put up overnight,” Fox concluded that the emails were a scam and decided to ignore them. But they kept coming. In early March, Fox returned to his Brooklyn apartment from out of town to discover about a dozen Beacon International business cards plastered to his front door and shoved in his mailbox. After much deliberation with fellow filmmakers Steven Tabakin and Margaret Whitton over whether to respond to these mysterious financiers, Fox decided to make a call. He asked Tabakin to be in the room with him, and he turned on his recorder.
“I should not be able to detect this,” Fox told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “The only reason I was able to detect this is because I’m used to it. Like, why am I recording phone calls? It’s crazy.”
Less than three months later, Fox’s suspicious streak would pay off.
In the recording, which you can listen to below, Fox is heard repeatedly asking Brandon Turner from Beacon International to identify his clients. Turner says only that his clients are “people from Europe, and the Middle East, but mainly Europe at this point,” environmentalists who are interested in funding an anti-fracking film. Turner continuously declines to name the European benefactors and instead asks Fox several times whether he’d be willing to set up a meeting. Fox explains in a variety of ways that he “can’t participate in something where, um, we’re taking money from people who aren’t identified. That’s not kosher for us.”
After several minutes of back and forth, in which Turner attempts to convince Fox that his clients are earnest environmentalists, Fox says that “obviously there are projects that we are working on ahead of time, that we’re working on now, that do sound like they would be interesting to your clients.” He immediately follows that comment up with a stipulation. “However, I really feel like I would need a more formal approach than just ‘Come meet me for coffee, this is the company we work for,’” Fox is heard saying. “We don’t know much about your company...I would need to have more transparency than you’re giving me right now to feel comfortable with doing that.”
Fox ends the conversation by reiterating that Turner’s clients will have to reveal themselves if they want to fund one of his projects. Reassured in his belief that Beacon International was just a scam, Fox all but forgot the entire ordeal, he told The Daily Beast. That is, until this week, when O’Keefe unveiled his latest undercover sting operation during the Cannes Film Festival.
At the end of O’Keefe’s video, Fox is heard saying, “Obviously there are projects that we are working on ahead of time, that we’re working on now, that do sound like they would be interesting to your clients.” But his stipulations have been cut.
“We have them caught in total deception,” Fox says. “This phone call reveals exactly how they work. They willfully portray it in the wrong light. They edit it so it sounds like you said something that you didn’t. Luckily I had the full tape.”
O’Keefe has made a career of tricking people, mostly liberals, into embarrassing, compromising, and incriminating situations, and then secretly filming them. He calls the tactic “citizen journalism,” and it’s resulted in the toppling of major figures and organizations, such as the former nonprofit ACORN and ex-NPR CEO Vivian Schiller. His videos have forced the ouster of any number of elected officials -- most recently, Wisconsin State Senate President Mike Ellis. But they've also generated legal troubles for O’Keefe. He was arrested and sentenced to three years’ probation for his involvement in a break-in at Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in 2010. In his latest operation, O’Keefe aimed to expose Hollywood hypocrisy by catching activist filmmakers willing to accept money from interests they purport to oppose and then plot to cover it up.
O’Keefe had been inspired by the discovery that the 2012 movie Promised Land, which starred Matt Damon and John Krasinski, and delivered an anti-fracking message, was partially financed by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, a production company owned by the government of the United Arab Emirates, a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries.
“What if you can get inside the meeting between the Middle Eastern funding source and the Hollywood producers?” O’Keefe thought, as he explained to The Daily Beast by phone from Cannes on Wednesday. “It took us nearly a year to obtain these videos because it was just so involved trying to penetrate and get access to these people.”
O’Keefe wouldn’t reveal any details about the tactics he used to get the access he did. But thanks to Josh Fox, who says Beacon International also reached out to Susan Sarandon and Who Killed the Electric Car? director Chris Paine, among others, The Daily Beast has learned that O’Keefe and his crew aggressively dangled their bait in front of some of the biggest environmentalists in Hollywood until they finally got a bite.
Josh and Rebecca Tickell—the husband-and-wife documentarian duo behind the Sundance Award-winning Fuel, about America's depedence on foreign oil—had just begun the preliminary production phase of their latest documentary, a spotlight on the fracking industry in their new hometown of Ojai, California, when they received a call from a young man named Brandon Turner. It was February, and Rebecca was about eight months pregnant with the couple’s first child.
“As documentary filmmakers, the biggest challenge we have is raising money for films,” Rebecca Tickell told The Daily Beast on Wednesday night. “When that call came along, we were really grateful to have funding for this film that we thought was very important.”
The Tickells took a meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel that month with Brandon Turner, who, Josh Tickell says, slowly revealed to them a few details about his client: He wants to be a silent partner. He’s from the Middle East. He has some oil interests. The Tickells then had a series of follow-up phone conversations with Turner that would constitute a large portion of O’Keefe’s Cannes debut.
In the recorded conversations, the Tickells are heard dropping names of celebrities they could bring to the table, such as Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson, and making assurances that they will keep the source of their funding a secret.
“We’re confident that we can keep this zip-locked, you know tight, tight, air-tight forever,” Josh Tickell is heard saying to Turner during one phone conversation. “Money to us...It’s money...we have no moral issue...But we know how a lot of people that would be necessary to pull this off, they would have issue.”
O’Keefe insists that none of the recordings were edited out of context. “All journalism is edited,” he says. The Tickells say they were prodded, that the video only shows them responding to Turner’s suggestions. Nonetheless, Josh Tickell admits, “we were gullible and naive, and we should have checked at every stage what was going on, and we did not.”
The Tickells were asked to have another meeting, this time with Turner’s associate, a man named Steven Sanchton, and the son of their alleged financier, introduced to them only as Muhammad.
“If Washington, D.C., continues fracking, America will be energy-efficient, and then they won’t need my oil anymore,” Muhammad is heard saying at the meeting. The Tickells also were asked to bring along some of their celebrity friends. Enter Hemingway and Begley, who both made statements Wednesday insisting that their presence at the Beverly Hills Hotel that day was nothing more than an attempt to help some friends get a film financed. Begley even told The Hollywood Reporter that he is hard of hearing and couldn’t make out much of what Muhammad was saying, so if it looks as if he’s agreeing with the phony oil heir in the video, he was simply trying to be polite.
While Begley and Hemingway may have just been smiling and playing nice, the Tickells don’t deny that they were far too eager to take money from a questionable source.
“There was a moment at the end of the meeting when we looked at each other and knew in our gut we should get up and leave, but we made the wrong choice. I didn’t look into my gut, and I regret that,” Josh Tickell says. “We said things we shouldn’t have said, we named people we shouldn’t have named. In that regard we are guilty, full stop. On the other hand, pitch meetings occur every day in Hollywood. People pitch the best possible scenario, the best actors they think they can get. If they meet someone in a coffee shop and they have their phone number, they’ll pitch that person. It’s not a good way to do things and we fell into that trap. We fell into the Hollywood trap.”
The Tickells say they’ve asked local law enforcement as well as the FBI to investigate whether O’Keefe and his crew broke the law by recording their private conversations, noting that they signed a nondisclosure agreement at Beacon International’s request and therefore assumed that all of their conversations were confidential.
Fox, who says he ignored a request from Beacon to sign a nondisclosure agreement after their first and only phone call, doesn’t have a lot of sympathy for the Tickells. But his disappointment in them is eclipsed by his disgust with O’Keefe.
“I’m amazed by the depths to which I’m disgusted by this behavior,” he says. (Full disclosure: Fox and Daily Beast Executive Editor Noah Shachtman have known each other since they played in a band together in high school; O'Keefe and Shachtman have been in contact since he profiled O'Keefe mentor Andrew Breitbart in 2010.)
Filmmaker Steven Tabakin, who was in the room with Fox during the phone call with Turner, says he is concerned about the lasting impact O’Keefe could have on the documentary filmmakers.
“If the result of this is that we all have to vet every single person that even expresses interest in supporting a film that’s important to us that we’re passionate about, it has had a chilling effect, and it’s going to be an enormous waste of time because it’s very, very difficult to get movies made, in particular movies that take on major issues and powerful forces,” he says.
This whole affair has earned O’Keefe more media attention than he’s had since a colleague filed a harassment complaint against him in 2011. (A judge later dismissed the complaint.) He even appeared on Megyn Kelly’s Fox News show Wednesday night, claiming that he has another video up his sleeve that will implicate an even bigger celebrity. But O’Keefe, who boasts of “a level of transparency” higher than any other news organization, won’t say who it is—at least not yet.
“I have to hold back my ammunition, hold my poker cards,” he says. “That’s the nature of my work.”