ACORN and two former employees of its Baltimore office filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit Wednesday against the makers of a hidden-camera video that showed the employees giving tax advice to a man posing as a pimp and a woman posing as a prostitute.
The liberal activist group contends that the audio portion of the video was obtained illegally because Maryland law requires the consent of both parties to record private conversations.
The employees seen in the video, Tonja Thompson and Shera Williams, were fired after it was posted online. Thompson and Williams are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which says they suffered "extreme emotional distress with attendant physical symptoms and injury to their reputations."
The lawsuit names James O'Keefe III and Hannah Giles, who played the pimp and prostitute in the video, as defendants. It also names conservative columnist and blogger Andrew Breitbart of Los Angeles, who posted it on his Web site, biggovernment.com.
Brietbart said he would respond with his lawyer to a request for comment. O'Keefe and Giles could not immediately be reached. Asked by Fox News earlier this month about the possibility of a lawsuit, O'Keefe said, "Bring it on."
"It's not in their interest to attack me and Hannah," O'Keefe told Fox News. "If they want to equate sex trafficking of young girls with videotaping someone without their consent, that's their moral prerogative, but that just shows you how low they are."
In the video, the pair claimed they planned to employ teenage girls from El Salvador as prostitutes, and one of the ACORN employees suggested that up to three of the girls could be claimed as dependents.
O'Keefe and Giles made similar videos at ACORN offices in Washington, New York and San Diego, but the lawsuit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, involves only the Baltimore recording.
The lawsuit claims the video damaged ACORN's reputation and asks for injunctions barring its further broadcast or distribution. It seeks $2 million in compensatory damages — $1 million for ACORN and $500,000 for each of the two former employees — as well as $1 million in punitive damages from each of the three defendants.
Andrew D. Freeman — an attorney for ACORN, Thompson and Williams — said the former employees did not wish to comment but that the emotional distress claim "is not an exaggeration."
"They're doing their best not to watch television. They've sort of been prisoners in their own homes," Freeman said. "While everyone, including them, agrees that some of the things they said were dumb, in Maryland we have a right to say dumb things in the privacy of our homes and offices without fear of being taped and without fear of being splashed all over the Internet."
Maryland's wiretap law is sometimes called the "Linda Tripp law." Tripp, a Maryland resident at the time, was indicted, but not prosecuted, for secretly recording telephone conversations with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky in which they discussed Lewinsky's affair with former president Bill Clinton.
ACORN — which stands for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — bills itself as the nation's largest advocacy group for the poor. It started in 1970 in Arkansas and is now a a national, multimillion-dollar conglomerate.
The videos sparked outrage on Capitol Hill, where the House and Senate voted last week in separate bills to deny federal funds to ACORN. Maryland does not fund the group.