Joe Basel: From U of M-Morris to Louisiana Watergate
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.
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.
"The reaction was probably the most visceral from the campus—and from the senators—we've written about over the years," says Bordewick.
BEN WETMORE WENT TO MORRIS to visit Basel around the same time the Johnson article came out. In his mid-20s at the time, Wetmore was already a legend among right-wing conservative activists.
Years earlier, he'd become an overnight star when police arrested him at Washington, D.C.'s American University for videotaping a Tipper Gore speech. The university's courts convicted Wetmore on charges of attempting to steal Gore's intellectual property, confiscated the footage, and sentenced him to 40 hours of on-campus cleanup duty.
Wetmore turned around and appeared on The O'Reilly Factor, where he accused the university of persecuting him.
"I was stripped from my offices in elected student government...I have a disciplinary probation for a year and I have a blemish on my record, which says I assaulted an officer and stole property from the university," Wetmore lamented via satellite.
"See, you should have called me," Bill O'Reilly said. "I would have gone down there and represented you in front of this kangaroo court."
That endorsement wrote Wetmore's ticket. After graduating from American University, he was hired by the Leadership Institute, an Arlington-based institution that trains young Republicans how to agitate. Among Wetmore's responsibilities was indentifying the next generation of conservatives on college campuses and giving them start-up money to spread their message.
Basel must have made an impression, because soon after Wetmore's visit, the Leadership Institute provided a grant to start a right-leaning campus newspaper at U of M-Morris.
Issues of the Counterweight showed up on campus the next month. It didn't look like much—a few sheets of poorly printed loose leaf that looked more like a church newsletter than a tabloid. Still, the message was clear: "Get Involved. Change Morris. Change the World," read the cover. Published in March 2005, it featured an interview with Morris chancellor Sam Schuman and an enthusiastic column from a student who found college and church to be a winning combination.
The newspaper also featured Basel's baby-faced grin in a small photo on page 8 above the title "Publisher."
By late spring, the Counterweight went full color and started printing on real newsprint. A few noisy articles, including one about a well-liked professor not getting tenure, gained the paper credibility, and before long it was in direct competition with the Register, Basel's former employer.
As the Counterweight continued to grow in notoriety, Basel ratcheted up the radicalism. Basel's hallmark was a raucous breed of satire that would be lost on almost everyone but him. One issue found Basel and three other Counterweight staffers dressed in aprons and holding hair dryers over the headline, "What does it take to be a feminist?"
PZ Myers, the college's renowned Darwinist bulldog, was one of Basel's frequent targets. "If it had been anybody else I would have ripped him apart," Myers says. "But he was a student here, and there was nothing much I could say."
BASEL'S RELATIONSHIP WITH WETMORE and the Leadership Institute didn't end with the grant. After starting the Counterweight, Basel and co-founder Emily Loehr flew to Arizona State University to help teach right-wing activism with Wetmore. Wide-eyed Republican radicals from all over the country came to Tempe to learn the art of right-wing political street theater.
Back at Morris, Basel had become the campus's loudest and most active conservative. He whipped the once-dwindling College Republicans into a highly active campus group, even organizing a trip to George W. Bush's presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C.
Then one day students found signs littered all over campus that read, "End Racism and Sexism Now: Kill All White Males." It was intended to be satire, but as with so many of Basel's jokes, few got the punch line.
"It seems like there is no method to his madness," says Morris alumnus Donavon Cawley. "He just jumps on these crazy trolleys."
Because of the posters' racial language, rumors on campus first pointed to the Black Student Union as their source. When it surfaced that Basel was the culprit—he'd found the slogan at the conservative website Protestwarrior.com—the already agitated campus was brought to a boil.
The student government organized a public forum to try to ease the tension, and Basel volunteered to speak in his own defense.
"One thing about Joe is that he doesn't run and hide," says Kristen Strissel, a former roommate of Basel. "He isn't going to set off some political bomb and then head for the hills."
The night of the forum, students poured into the Morris auditorium—some to put a face to the controversy, others just to see Basel squirm. Dressed in a business suit and tie, Basel sat smugly in the back corner of the packed auditorium with his usual posse of young Republicans.
After the moderators laid out the ground rules, a few students talked about the harm that the signs had done to campus harmony. "This is a national conspiracy!" a Morris professor shouted at one of Basel's cohorts, who was filming the spectacle.
Student government President Blair Jasper marched across the auditorium with the microphone and shoved it in Basel's face. "You're going to talk now," Jasper commanded.
Basel looked around the room, and then casually approached the podium. He set down a plastic binder of prepared remarks. Crowd members hissed.
Basel began trying to explain the satiric aspect of the posters, but the crowd only booed more lustily. Then, as if to see how far he could push it, Basel started reciting gangsta-rap lyrics, using the word "nigger" enough times to make the Black Student Union walk out in protest.
"It was a mob," says Eagan Heath, who covered the event in the University Register. "It was scary."
JEREMY DAVIS ARRIVED ON CAMPUS on a cold morning last November to find images of dead fetuses spray-chalked on sidewalks and buildings. It seemed no coincidence that Ben Wetmore was scheduled to speak at U of M-Morris that evening, via the Basel Foundation.
Davis and Jeanette Blalock-Davis, both members of the Students for a Democratic Society, an unsanctioned campus group, rallied their troops with emails and phone calls. They weren't going to greet Wetmore as a liberator.
In the Morris auditorium later that day, Wetmore took the podium in front of about 50 protestors. As soon as Wetmore began to speak, Davis began loudly repeating back his every word in an unintelligible high pitch. Blalock-Davis and others shouted rebuttals to Wetmore's statements about abortion and sex education.
Wetmore maintained his composure, but Basel could not, and pulled the plug on the speech. Davis confronted Basel afterward and vowed to disrupt any other speaker he brought on campus.
"I think he's the most despicable person this region has ever produced," Davis says. "This is generally a cool place for people to have different political views. Joe managed to overcome that. To manage to make your politics divisive on this campus is impressive."
A picture taken after the speech has since replaced the homepage of Wetmore's once very active blog, Benwetmore.com, which temporarily shut down after the teabugging incident. The photo features two of the Morris students who protested Wetmore that evening, one holding a sign reading, "Ben Wetmore is: Anti-Transpeople, Anti-ACLU, Anti-college...."
In back of the protestors stands Wetmore, wearing a pinstriped navy suit, a yellow tie, and a self-satisfied grin.
JOHNNY ANGEL MET WETMORE by chance through a roommate-wanted ad on Craigslist. The lead singer of Johnny Angel and the Swingin' Demons, a popular New Orleans swing band, Angel had no idea he was moving in with a conservative activist.
In late January, Angel came home to find Wetmore and a few strangers sprawled out all over the duplex, typing away on laptops.
"They were all kind of engrossed in whatever they were doing," remembers Angel. "I thought it was funny—I mean here you are coming to New Orleans and you're in here on your laptop, not parading around the French Quarter."
One of the guests was James O'Keefe, who had published a video starring himself dressed as a pimp in the Brooklyn, New York, offices of ACORN. Filmed with a hidden camera, the video showed ACORN telling O'Keefe how to avoid getting busted, including identifying prostitutes as "performance artists" on tax forms.
Outcry over the video led to a cut in federal funding for ACORN and vaulted O'Keefe to right-wing fame. Two years ago, Wetmore and O'Keefe released videos of themselves applying for marriage licenses at three state offices in Massachusetts, telling the clerks that they were only in it for the tax breaks.
Angel had heard all about O'Keefe on the nightly news, but as O'Keefe sat there in his living room, quiet and contemplative, Angel didn't recognize him. Also there was Joe Basel, whom Angel says was the most gregarious of the bunch.
"Joe is a fun guy," he says. "You could tell he really liked to have a good time."
A man who prides himself on minding his own business, Angel didn't ask questions when his guests stayed glued to their laptops all weekend. He also didn't get suspicious when a stranger showed up in their living room dressed as a telephone repairman.
"I thought he was just a really clean-looking construction worker from up the street," says Angel.
Angel went with Wetmore and his friends to the Bombay Jazz Club that Sunday, where they drank mojitos and watched the Saints squeak past the Vikings in the NFC championship game. The group's sole Minnesotan, Basel took some razzing from the rest of the group for the loss. After the game, they went downtown to Bourbon Street for a few more drinks.
"They were all having a great time," Angel says.
The next morning, Angel left the house early. When he came home, he found the house ominously empty and untouched, as if no one had been there since the night before.
His first thought was that his guests had either gotten laid or arrested. After some thought, the latter seemed more likely.
As it happened, Angel was right. But he was surprised to find out the arrest wasn't for drunk and disorderly on Bourbon Street but rather tampering with the phone of a U.S. senator's office.
"I said, 'Holy shit!'" remembers Angel.
Angel drove the four down to the courthouse a few days later. A swath of reporters had amassed outside the building. Angel circled around to the back to avoid the media circus.
"It was kind of loose," Angel says. "I think they had it in their heads that once it was out what was really happening...that it would be quickly dissipated. It was kind of upbeat."
JUST AFTER 8 P.M., BASEL CALLS unexpectedly from a northern California number—one of his several cell phones, he says.
Since his release from jail, Basel has been traveling around the country conducting more hidden-camera investigations, he says. "As soon as we were out we were doing them again," he explains, but they're waiting for "better timing" to release the footage.
Although he faces up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, Basel talks about the case like it's a thing of the past—as though everyone has already realized they made a terrible mistake.
Basel's lackadaisical attitude toward the federal charges is in keeping with his newfound celebrity. At one point, he puts a reporter on hold to answer another phone.
"I'm in San Diego for a few days," he tells the caller. "They're getting nicer and nicer with their offers, so it's looking good for us."
Basel won't delve into the details of his case, except to say that it's been misrepresented in the media.
"It's journalistic malpractice," Basel says. "It's too bad because they're lying to the American people. And they did lie and they chose to lie about what happened in Louisiana. And it's an indictment of the mainstream media."
As the charges loom, Basel is certain the truth will come out and he will be cleared. Yet when asked what he was in Room 1005 to do, he will only offer the Latin word that has become the teabuggers' shibboleth: "veritas."
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