Published on May 15, 2015

Texas Legislators are starting to sweat their butts off, but it isn’t because of the Texas heat. The scandalous videos that are about to drop are going to rock their world, and not in a good way.

By Lauren McGaughy and David Saleh Rauf, Houston Chronicle

AUSTIN – For six months, a conservative nonprofit claims it has been covertly filming lawmakers and lobbyists out and about in the capital city, secretly tracking them at restaurants, bars, fundraisers and public events.

The undercover operation has shifted in the last two weeks to the heart of Texas politics, the state Capitol. Equipped with hidden cameras, a handful of operatives roaming the Pink Dome have created a new dynamic for lawmakers, lobbyists and even state troopers in the closing days of the session.

“It feels much more like they’re trying to evoke a physical confrontation, and I think that’s dangerous,” said Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, who said he has been approached several times by the group’s operatives. “It’s a recipe for real problems, and I think that’s what they want. They want a member to lash out.”

Little is known about the group, the Austin-based American Phoenix Foundation. The nonprofit maintains a skeleton website, lists P.O. boxes as official business addresses, has misrepresented staff to lawmakers and news media and refuses to talk about its donors. All the group has disclosed is its purpose, which it says is to expose hypocrisy, corruption, even extramarital affairs.

In their first interview since launching the concealed camera operation, the nonprofits’ co-founders, Hannah Giles and Joseph Basel, explained their motives, saying they have plotted similar projects for years. Some of have not panned out, they said, while others still are in the works.

“We’ve been wanting to do this type of project in other states, in other places, but because we’re here, we’re like, ‘let’s try it now,’ ” Giles, 26, said, cradling the baby boy she and Basel, 29, had just two weeks ago.

With ties to conservative activists James O’Keefe and Andrew Breitbart, both Giles and Basel already had reaped some celebrity in Republican circles before moving to Texas. Giles and O’Keefe were responsible for the controversial 2009 undercover video operation that took down ACORN; Basel, O’Keefe and others pleaded guilty in 2011 to entering the New Orleans offices of then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., under false pretenses.

The couple formed the American Phoenix Foundation in 2011. According to the group’s website, its goal is to “transcend traditional media” by recruiting and training journalists through “ethical, innovative, and technologically driven” practices.

The biggest mystery is what footage the group said it has amassed will reveal. The foundation has declined to share the footage with traditional media outlets, opting instead to hand them over to the conservative website Breitbart Texas, which Basel said was due to the fact that the site’s managing director, Brandon Darby, is a friend.

Giles said the idea behind the group’s videotaping project was sparked five years ago, when she, then 21 and a celebrity for her role in the ACORN operation, found herself invited to numerous insider Republican soirees, the poster child for conservative “citizen journalism.”

Read more: Houston Chronicle