James O’Keefe says he duped Ed Begley Jr. and Mariel Hemingway into agreeing to get involved with an anti-fracking movie while hiding that its funding comes from Middle Eastern oil interests.
Journalist James O’Keefe, known for his controversial undercover sting operations aimed usually at liberals — is set to unveil at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday the first of a group of videos that he says will reveal hypocrisy among Hollywood environmentalists.
In the video, obtained exclusively by The Hollywood Reporter and embedded below, actors Ed Begley Jr. and Mariel Hemingway are duped by a man named “Muhammad,” who is looking to make an anti-fracking movie while hiding that its funding is coming from Middle Eastern oil interests.
Muhammad, accompanied by a man pretending to be an ad executive, seemingly has the two actors agreeing to participate in the scheme, even after he acknowledges that his goal is to keep America from becoming energy independent. The meeting, which appears to have been secretly recorded, took place a few months ago at the Beverly Hills Hotel.
But the real target of the sting operation appears to be Josh and Rebecca Tickell, a husband and wife team known for their environmental movies, such as 2008’s Fuel, which won an award at Sundance and was later screened at the White House for members of President Obama‘s administration.
Begley tells THR that if it looks like he’s agreeing with faux Muhammad about anything, it’s because the Tickells asked him to be polite so that they’d get their funding for a movie they’re making calledFracked, a film that will argue a technique for extracting natural gas called fracking is bad for the environment. Also, Begley says that he is hard of hearing and couldn’t understand everything Muhammad was saying.
The video also includes some audio from phone conversations between the fake Muhammad’s representatives and the Tickells. “We’re confident that we can keep this zip-locked. You know, tight. Tight. Air-tight forever,” Josh Tickell is heard saying. “If we don’t protect who is kind of funding this thing … if we have to disclose that or that becomes a necessary part of it, the whole enterprise will not work.”
Rebecca Tickell adds: “Because if people think the film is funded by Middle Eastern oil it will, it will not have that credibility,” and Josh Tickell says, “It’s money, so in that sense we have no moral issue.”
Tickell tells THR he hasn’t yet seen the video, but he says he and his Green Planet production company are “reserving the right to seek damages” against O’Keefe.
“It was a bit of an American Hustle, with bad acting and worse hair,” he recalls of the meeting with Muhammad and others.
“To be clear, we flat out deny any implication of impropriety,” he says. “Had an offer been made, significant due diligence would have been conducted … the sad part is, O’Keefe casts a bad light on Muslims at large as if they’re a bad group of people.”
He also objects to an email O’Keefe he said that O’Keefe sent to supporters saying he is “on the verge of breaking a story exposing environmentalist Nazis blocking our expanded use of our own energy resources.”
“To attempt to equate the extermination of European Jews with efforts to oppose fracking serves only to cheapen the impact of the term,” he says, “and for that he owes an apology, not to us, but to the survivors and their families.”
(Update: O’Keefe says the email never used the term “Nazi” and that Tickell is confusing the actual email with a headline from a blogger who wrote about O’Keefe’s email).
Rebecca Tickell, who hasn’t yet seen the video, says she was nine months pregnant at the time of the meeting with Muhammad. “When we make a film, it’s to spread awareness of the dangers of fracking, and when they asked us to not disclose where the money came from, you know, as far as we were concerned we shared the same goal, which was to end fracking in America,” she says. “This film is so important that I don’t want it to get lost in the shuffle of he said, she said.”
Tracy Columbus, Hemingway’s personal manager, when informed about the video, calls O’Keefe “a coward” and a “frat boy” and says, “He’s got legal issues on this one.”
“Mariel didn’t give money or take money,” Columbus adds. “This is one bad lunch that’s embarrassing. There’s no nefarious aspect to this. She showed up to help a friend. She’s passionate about protecting the earth and would like to see a movie made about all sides of fracking. … Shame on people who are so weak and deceptive to set up two artists who have worked very hard to achieve credibility in their community. Hopefully, O’Keefe will be made responsible for these dirty tricks.”
Begley adds that he suggested to the Tickells after the meeting that they might have been “punked,” but he also says he didn’t do anything terribly unusual.
“Josh is a friend, and he said if I showed up at this lunch, he would get money from a backer. He wanted some Hollywood people involved, and I saw the other one was Mariel Hemingway. I basically sat there and didn’t say much. Josh said to just nod and agree, so I guess I did that,” Begley says.
He adds: “If promises made at the Polo Lounge were binding, I’d have a very different acting career now. I’ll go a step further. I don’t think it’s bad Josh Tickell is taking money from some Arab guy. It’s much better than giving money to Middle East oil, which I’ve spent my whole life against. Think about it. My electric car. My bicycle. How much foreign oil is there in that? Unlike these James O’Keefe characters who ride around in gas guzzlers, I’ve given no money to foreign oil.”
O’Keefe first earned national attention with a series of videos where he is seen posing as a pimp for underage prostitutes at offices of ACORN, a non-profit group focusing on voter registration, affordable housing and other issues. After O’Keefe released several videos where workers agree to help the fake pimp use the tax code to hide money, lawmakers took federal funding from the 40-year-old group and it disbanded in 2010.
The political left usually accuses O’Keefe and his Project Veritas organization of selectively editing their work to distort the truth, so he has taken to releasing unedited, raw footage, as is the case herewith the sting that targeted the two actors and the Tickells.
O’Keefe is also known for video of a meeting between NPR senior vp fundraising Ronald Schiller and someone who pretended to be a representative from a pro-Sharia Muslim group. During the meeting, Schiller says the conservative Tea Party movement is “really xenophobic” and “very fundamental Christian … I wouldn’t even call it Christian. It’s this weird evangelical kind of move.” After the videos, Schiller was placed on administrative leave and the next day CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation) resigned.
The political left accused O’Keefe of doctoring the NPR tape and also has made the claim on numerous occasions that his work cannot be trusted, in part because of a sting against Sen. Mary Landrieu that went awry and resulted in his arrest. He pleaded guilty to entering a federal building under false pretenses and served three years probation and 100 hours of community service. O’Keefe’s detractors also point to a failed plot to punk CNN, which was planning a piece on him. Correspondent Abbie Boudreau was supposed to meet O’Keefe on a boat, but while she was expecting a serious interview with a rising young star in the conservative movement, his plan was to try and seduce her in an “over-the-top” way and capture her reaction on hidden cameras.
Contacted by phone in Cannes, O’Keefe says he got the idea for his environmental sting when he saw the credits on Promised Land, a 2012 film starring Matt Damon and John Krasinski that has an anti-fracking message and was co-funded by Image Nation Abu Dhabi.
“We’ve suspected one of Hollywood’s motives was to destroy American energy independence,” O’Keefe tells THR. “We wanted to see how these movies get made. We wanted to know who else was funding them and how Hollywood might be covering up the source of these funds. What are they not telling us? Apparently, a lot.”
He says he planned to debut his 20-minute video, though it will also go live soon at YouTube, at Cannes because “this is where Hollywood is right now. We wanted to send a message to these people that, if this is their behavior, we’re gonna bring it right to their backyard.” He says he ran into Harvey Weinsteinin his hotel elevator and invited him to the screening. “I doubt he will come,” adds O’Keefe.
O’Keefe did not provide further details about his latest effort, except that he set his sights on Hollywood environmentalists about year ago and that more videos are coming. At the end of the video featuring the Tickells, Hemingway and Begley, a tease of what’s to come next includes the image of a woman — presumably a celebrity — though with her face blurred. Another tease is of a phone conversation with Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated director of Gasland, a documentary that makes the case that the environment is harmed by fracking.
Update: Late Tuesday, the Tickells created a video response that also serves as a pitch to raise $72,000 via an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign to make Fracked. “I’m about to tell you a story of the lengths that some people will go to discourage the transition to green energy,” Josh Tickell says in the video. “If it wasn’t so serious it might even be kind of funny. Recently, my wife and I were royally punked.”