Young, bearded, a bit scruffy, a young man walked into a community organizing office in East Harlem, lugging a heavy bag. A little nervous, he said that his name was Melvin Howting, and that he worked for an environmental company in New Jersey and had a few questions about how to organize a union.
He wanted to know how to get higher wages.
And, oh yes, he had another question: If he formed a union, could his fellow workers join with the employer to shake down politicians for more money?
At this point, Rhea Byer-Ettinger, an organizer for Manhattan Together, felt her internal baloney detector go on red alert. “Beep, beep, beep,” she said. “I said to him: ‘Well, that’s not how we work. Tell me, why are you asking me about that?’ ”
This is the anatomy of a political sting.
Nothing this fellow said was true. Public records reveal that his real name is John M. Howting. He is active in the conservative movement and does not want to organize a union. His company — for which he built an elaborate Web site — and its officials do not exist. Ms. Byer-Ettinger suspects that he secretly recorded their conversation.
For several years, young conservatives have made a cottage industry of going undercover and trying to goad people working at perceived liberal institutions — like Acorn, NPR and Planned Parenthood — into saying something stupid. Trained by well-financed foundations, these dirty tricksters pose as pimps, sex traffickers and Muslim activists and record conversations surreptitiously. Then they release videos that have often been heavily edited.
Conservative Congressional representatives call for investigations and try to slash financing. In the case of Acorn, some workers did, in fact, give truly stupid advice to the fake prostitutes. That organization went belly up.
Planned Parenthood and NPR made far fewer mistakes and easily survived. But the disruptions were considerable.
Of late, conservatives have set their sights on the Industrial Areas Foundation, a national organizing group founded by a hard-bitten, inventive organizer named Saul Alinsky. He campaigned to clean up the slums around the Chicago meatpacking district and fought segregation and abuses by banks.
He has been dead and buried for 40 years, but mention of his name — Alinsky! Alinsky! Alinsky! — sets conservative Republican activists and presidential candidates to twitching.
In the early 1980s, you see, an Alinsky-style organizer trained the young Barack Obama. For some on the right, this was the pivotal moment when the young Mr. Obama was dipped in the waters of radical struggle. Or, to quote a conservative columnist, when he was exposed to “the ruthless tactics and contempt for truth expounded by his guiding light, Saul Alinsky.”
In New York, the Industrial Areas Foundation has organized for 30 years. With the help of Republican and Democratic mayors, it has built thousands of affordable single-family homes — a weirdly bourgeois affectation, that! It worked closely with the federal prosecutor Rudolph W. Giuliani to fight crime in East New York, Brownsville and East Harlem, and with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to construct a beautiful school campus in the South Bronx.
Manhattan Together is an I.A.F. affiliate, as is East Brooklyn Congregations. Mr. Howting visited both last week.
“I will say I had a gut reaction: Is this some sort of weird sting?” said Grant Lindsay, an organizer with East Brooklyn Congregations. “I figured I’m just naturally a little suspicious.”
Mr. Howting, in fact, is a young conservative in a hurry. He matriculated at Miami University of Ohio, where he led the deeply conservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute and invited James O’Keefe, the grandmaster of conservative undercover dirty tricks, to speak on campus. Mr. Howting was accused by fellow students of once slathering tanning oil on his face and trying to pass as a Latino liberal activist on campus.
While he was in college, a conservative radio show named him a top young conservative of the week.
For this scam, Mr. Howting apparently took his middle name, Melvin, as his alias. He constructed a fake Facebook page, where he declared his love for Franklin D. Roosevelt, President Obama and Chris Matthews, not to mention the rapper Kanye West. His site for the New Jersey environmental company boasted of a vice president who had attended Earlham College and a chief executive who had graduated from West Point with “highest distinction.”
A check with Earlham and West Point found no record of either man.
Mr. Howting did not return phone calls and e-mails. But on Monday afternoon, a person who said he was from this fake company called. Send me your questions, he said, and I’ll get back to you by deadline. Deadline came and went. No call. But by 6 p.m., the company’s Web site had been pulled down.
“It plays with your mind. It really does,” Ms. Byer-Ettinger said. “You wonder: Did he tape me? Is he cutting and pasting a tape right now?”