The Leadership Institute: The Group That Helped Launch The Conservative Careers Of Two Alleged Phone Tamperers

James O'Keefe
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We know that at least two of the young men charged in connection with attempts to tamper with Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office phones led conservative college newspapers that received seed money from The Leadership Institute. But what’s the Leadership Institute?

On its website, the nonprofit boasts that it “prepares conservatives for success in politics, government and the news media.” It’s trained more than 79,000 students over the years, and employs 58 people. The group is led by longtime Republican player Morton Blackwell, who was elected to the RNC’s executive committee in 2004.

The Leadership Institute says it “actively supports the entire conservative community” and makes its list of 25,000+ “LI-trained conservative activists and students” available to other conservative groups.

Leadership Institute Vice President David Fenner said in a phone interview this morning that the group had “informal, above-board relationships” with both James O’Keefe and Joseph Basel when they were college students.

O’Keefe founded The Centurion at Rutgers and Basel launched The Counterweight at the University of Minnesota-Morris — each of which received $500 “Balance in Media” grants from the Leadership Institute. Both were charged yesterday with trying to tamper with Landrieu’s phones.

Fenner said he hadn’t found any records indicating that the Leadership Institute had given grants to publications associated with either of the other two suspects, Stan Dai and Robert Flanagan.

Additionally, O’Keefe was a Leadership Institute employee for roughly a year in 2006-2007, Fenner said, working as a student publications coordinator who helped recruit college conservatives and help them start their own publications.

Fenner maintained that the Leadership Institute is a “typical” nonprofit. It receives funding from foundations and individual donors, he said, and few corporations. Most of its funds, he said, comes from small and medium donations solicited through direct mail.

“There’s not an individual who funds the Leadership Institute,” he said.

In tax forms posted on its website, the Leadership Institute reported receiving nearly $6 million in contributions in 2008, compared to $9.6 million in 2007. The group reported spending $11.2 million in 2008 and $11.4 million the year before — leading to a net loss both years.

The group claimed its net assets and fund balances totaled $11.6 million at the end of 2008.

In 2008, the Leadership Institute reported spending more than $3 million conducting “344 training schools of 39 different types to train youth leaders and provide education regarding the public policy process.”

Additionally, the group reported $4.6 million in spending on its “campus leadership program” — the same program that O’Keefe and Basel benefited from. The Leadership Institute uses this program to conduct “leadership schools for these groups and helps students start newspapers on their campuses.”

And it’s not just college journalists! The group also spent nearly $640,000 in 2008 on “studios” offering “a variety of schools and training opportunities for print and broadcast journalists, press secretaries and spokespersons.”

Fenner stressed that the Leadership Institute no longer has a formal relationship with O’Keefe — and seems to be distancing itself from the phone tampering suspect. There’s been at least one report of the Leadership Institute scrubbing its website of O’Keefe references.

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