Opinion | Judge rules that opponents may call Project Veritas a 'political spying operation' in ongoing case – The Washington Post
James O’Keefe, founder of Project Veritas, has long maintained that his group produces journalism. The organization’s website boasts that its undercover work advances the legacy of “Nellie Bly, Mike Wallace, Gunter Wallraff and Woodward and Bernstein.”
A federal judge on Oct. 14, however, ruled that for the purposes of an ongoing civil case, Project Veritas’s opponent in an upcoming civil trial was free to portray the group’s conduct in different terms. Citing statements made by O’Keefe in his book “American Pravda,” U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman wrote that they “provide a sufficient good faith evidentiary basis for plaintiffs to characterize defendants’ conduct in the events that gave rise to this case as a ‘political spying operation’ and to question Mr. O’Keefe about the conduct in those terms.” The court also denied Project Veritas’s request to bar evidence purportedly showing its support of former president Donald Trump, while recognizing that Project Veritas may seek to frame its actions as independent journalism.
Overall, the ruling marks a setback to O’Keefe’s organization as it prepares to defend itself in trial against the suit from Democracy Partners, a progressive political consulting firm. According to the lawsuit, Project Veritas sent an operative named Allison Maass to pose as a woman named “Angela Brandt” and then to infiltrate Democracy Partners, which was then working to get Hillary Clinton elected as president. The operation — in which two other Project Veritas employees played roles in the undercover work, according to the court record — extracted documents from the group and secured video of operatives talking about their work.
The resulting multipart series — titled “Rigging the Election” and presented by Project Veritas Action, a sister arm of O’Keefe’s organization — landed with immediate impact: Scott Foval, a contractor for Democracy Partners, was filmed discussing planting operatives at Trump rallies to instigate violent reprisals; he also chatted about strategies for getting around voting laws, as The Post’s David Weigel noted at the time. (Democracy Partners responded that the firm was the “victim of a well-funded, systematic spy operation that is the modern day equivalent of the Watergate burglars.”) Foval lost his job with Americans United for Change, and Democracy Partners’s Robert Creamer announced that he was stepping away from his work on the Clinton campaign.
In June 2017, Democracy Partners, Creamer and his consulting firm filed their complaint, with counts including unlawful wiretapping, fraudulent misrepresentation, civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty and trespass. The last two of those counts were tossed by the court in March.
But as the case heads to a December trial, the defendants have sought the exclusion of three categories of evidence from the proceedings, including efforts by Democracy Partners “to mischaracterize Project Veritas as a ‘political spying operation.’ ”
In his ruling on that matter, Friedman relied on “American Pravda,” in which O’Keefe unspools a detailed rundown of the Democracy Partners infiltration. To pull off her impersonation of an intern, Maass had to work long hours and prepare plans for all sorts of contingencies. Her “daily movements had to reflect her assigned role,” wrote O’Keefe in language quoted by the court. “She was literally living out her character in America’s capital city much as Americans overseas did in Moscow during the Cold War.”
This undercover work was so successful, writes O’Keefe, that Creamer took Maass along when he visited the Democratic National Committee headquarters. “The last time operatives got caught stealthily entering the DNC headquarters, those headquarters were in the Watergate complex. Remember that kerfuffle?” wrote O’Keefe.
The judge ruled: “Although published roughly a year and a half after Ms. Maass’s internship terminated, the book shows that Mr. O’Keefe himself — a defendant in this case and the leader of Project Veritas — viewed the conduct at issue as accomplished by ‘operatives’ who were ‘stealthily’ infiltrating restricted spaces.”
“Spying” was also a fair description, Friedman ruled, considering that at least three agents working for the organization “used false identities in their interactions with plaintiffs.”
We asked Project Veritas about the ruling and received this statement from a spokesperson: “It shocks no one that the media reports on routinely denied motions in limine like this while refusing to report on Project Veritas’ undefeated legal track record most recently including defeating the New York Times’ Motion to Dismiss in which the New York Supreme Court said the terms ‘disinformation’ and ‘deceptive’ certainly apply to the Times’ actions.”
Friedman’s ruling is notable because of Project Veritas’s history of challenging descriptions of its activities in mainstream news accounts. The group posts a regular feature titled “Retracto!” in which it documents corrections made to stories about Project Veritas (there’s a special page for The Post).
In May, for instance, O’Keefe highlighted changes to a Politico article that described Project Veritas as “a conservative activist organization” responsible for spreading “misinformation” and targeting “liberal organizations or individuals.” O’Keefe tweeted at the story’s author, Benjamin Din, asking if he’d “ever been deposed?” Project Veritas also sent a letter to Politico stating its views on the news outlet’s abridgment. Politico published an editor’s note saying, “The description of Project Veritas has been revised, including to reflect that the organization has not exclusively targeted liberal organizations or individuals.”
Here are a few other instances of O’Keefe pursuing corrections to shorthand descriptions of Project Veritas’ work. (On Monday, after the Daily Beast reported on Friedman’s ruling, O’Keefe ripped the story’s headline, which was corrected.)
As to whether Friedman’s ruling licenses media outlets to call Project Veritas a “political spying operation,” there are two caveats: First, it’s confined to “the events that gave rise to this case,” writes Friedman. “The Court reaches no conclusion about whether there is any good faith evidentiary basis for describing Project Veritas’s conduct generally in this manner.” Second, the court also recognized that Project Veritas is free to portray its work as “newsgathering by investigative journalists” — and that the jury will determine which “characterization it finds most persuasive.”
Addressing the broader facets of the case, the Project Veritas spokesperson wrote via email, “This lawsuit is further exposing the lows to which Creamer will stoop to attack the first amendment, this time by calling undercover reporting ‘political spying.’ Creamer’s actions are antithetical to a free press and should be denounced by all reporters.”
Consistent with that appeal, Project Veritas leaned on the First Amendment in its motion to dismiss the case. “When unorthodox journalists step in to demonstrate abuses in America’s asylums — like Nellie Bly did — or go undercover to show corruption in the American political process — like James O’Keefe does — the First Amendment must offer a serious defense against frivolous lawsuits designed to chill it.” The Democracy Partners action, argues Project Veritas, is “little more than Plaintiffs’ attempt to muzzle reporting that caused public embarrassment.” Project Veritas also emphasized an omission from Democracy Partners’s complaint: There’s no claim of defamation.
Yet denunciations of the Democracy Partners suit by “all reporters” are not materializing. After all: To defend Project Veritas’s “journalism” in this case, you would have to endorse a scheme that involved lying about the operatives’ names, families, work history, goals and health. (Maass faked an illness to sidestep an event that might have endangered her mission.) What’s more, Project Veritas donated $20,000 to Creamer’s initiatives. “The donation certainly greased the wheels,” writes O’Keefe in “American Pravda.” (The group that received the donation returned it.)
Forgive us if we don’t recognize that activity as journalism.
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