Joe Basel: From U of M-Morris to Louisiana Watergate

A local boy's rise to power in America's right wing

On a quiet morning in late January, a thin stranger with neatly parted brown hair stood in room 1005 of the Hale Boggs Federal Building in New Orleans, the office of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu. The man had no business being there. But when one of Landrieu's staffers inquired, the man replied simply that he was waiting for someone.

Two more men entered. Carrying white hard hats, they were dressed in workmen's uniforms of blue jeans, fluorescent green vests over denim shirts, and tool belts.

One was Joe Basel, a bulky guy with a squared jaw and short brown hair. Basel and his partner Robert Flanagan told the Landrieu staffer that they were technicians sent by the phone company. The staffer showed them to the phone on the secretary's desk.

Basel and buds mocked feminism with aprons and hair dryers
Basel and buds mocked feminism with aprons and hair dryers
Ben Wetmore (second from left) and friends with U of M protesters
Ben Wetmore (second from left) and friends with U of M protesters

On cue, the thin stranger—a right-wing activist named James O'Keefe, most famous for posing as a pimp in hidden-camera video of ACORN—positioned himself carefully in front of the desk to capture everything on a discreet cell phone camera.

As the Landrieu staffer looked on, Basel checked the receiver and tried to call it with his cell phone. He couldn't get through, he explained. Flanagan tried calling, too. Nothing.

They were going to need to take a look at the building's main phone system, Basel and Flanagan said. They were directed to the General Services Administration office.

When the two men got to the office, they were met by a staff member who wanted to see some credentials. They tried to claim they'd left their IDs in the truck, but the jig was up.

Basel and his cohorts would later admit to federal agents that they weren't repairmen. They claimed they were performing a form of stunt journalism to expose Landrieu for dodging constituents' calls.

But authorities saw something more sinister, and charged them with entering federal properties under false pretenses for the purpose of committing a felony, which could carry a penalty of 10 years in prison.

Basel's mug shot was splashed across the New York Times, and the four men—cheekily nicknamed "teabuggers"—quickly became young darlings of the radical right. Basel and O'Keefe received a rousing welcome at the Conservative Political Action Conference, though they had to obtain permission from the court to attend.

Basel seems completely unconcerned that he's facing serious time in the federal penitentiary.

"Obviously those charges aren't going to pan out," Basel says. "My defense of what happened in New Orleans is going to be: Just play the video. Play the video in court and let the jury or judge or whatever decide if we did anything wrong."

He almost makes it sound like this may be the best thing to ever happen to him.

And he may be right.


IN FALL 2004, James Bordewick held court in the basement newsroom of the University Register, the U of M-Morris's student-run weekly newspaper, chatting up an open house of mostly incoming freshman. Then a senior, Bordewick was the incoming editor-in-chief of the Register and was sick of the paper's long-standing reputation for pushing the liberal agenda

Among those in the audience was Basel, then in his first week at Morris. A dapper 18-year-old with curly brown hair draped over his forehead, long sideburns, and a mischievous grin, he was the son of a Lutheran pastor and had already labeled himself a Republican, even though he had only a vague understanding of what the word meant.

After the speech, Bordewick sat down with Basel on the worn couch in the back of the newsroom. "He told me he was conservative and a little reluctant to work with us," remembers Bordewick. "But I told him I was interested in having some conservative opinions in the editorial section."

Basel was convinced, and signed on as a news reporter and right-wing columnist.

Basel's former colleagues at the Register remember him as an initially quiet addition to the staff. He had a natural talent as a writer and a healthy respect for deadlines. But as his political views began to sharpen, they say, the truth often took a back seat to advancing the conservative cause.

In an article published in February 2005, Basel covered Lobby Day at the state Capitol. The story featured plenty of Basel's subtle political snark—a skill he was just beginning to hone—but it was an anonymous quote that really set off alarm bells.

Wrote Basel: "According to one Morris lobbyist, 'Sen. Dean Johnson, majority leader of the Senate, was extremely rude and verbally stated that none of the legislators were going to listen to college kids at the capital. [sic] He also shared his belief that all college students are about drinking and partying. All this animosity was inserted between snide comments about the governor and his cronies.'"

If Johnson did say those things, Basel's mysterious source was the only one who overheard him. Johnson accused the Register of libel and threatened to sue. Infuriated students and faculty demanded that Bordewick publicly identify the anonymous source. When he refused, the angry mob pushed school administrators to assign the paper a faculty adviser, which never panned out.

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