Meet the Bargain-Bin James Bond Infiltrating the Left for James O’Keefe
Who tries to dupe progressive groups into illegal activities? Bros like “James Fortune,” a mindfulness-loving Crossfit bro worried about antifa murdering us all in the streets.
As far as spy names go, “James Fortune” sounds like a bargain-bin Bond, something out of a lazily-written pulp novel. So of course when Project Veritas tried to infiltrate several progressive groups in North Carolina, the right-wing pseudo-journalism outfit sent in a guy with the fakest possible nom de guerre, only to see Fortune undone by his own hubris—and a killer bout of seasickness.
Far from being a suave super-spy, Fortune was really just a mindfulness-loving Crossfit bro from NYC, a long-time member of Project Veritas cosplaying his way through another operation. In that, he was like several “undercover journalists” in recent months, executing James O’Keefe’s vision for undermining faith in our voting processes and generally doing their best to help Donald Trump win re-election. Oh, and doing it with the help of white supremacists.
Project Veritas continues to attract attention because they're able to pitch themselves as old-school reporters—watchdogs who simply want transparency in government. But, as the case of "James Fortune" shows, they're more often than not right-wing partisans, executing clumsy stings and producing journalism that's questionable, at best. And yet Veritas' "investigations" are still being cited by Republican politicians, all the way up to the president, most recently to push the conspiracy theory that rampant voter fraud is going to corrupt the 2020 election. Knowing who's behind these undercover operations helps the public assess how seriously—or not—to take Veritas' purported revelations.
As embarrassingly detailed in an expose by NC Policy Watch, James Fortune presented himself as the operator of Equality Gym in New York City. (As if the name weren’t already a bad parody of liberal wokeness, Equality Gym’s Twitter avatar featured two sweaty men, one White and one Black, clasping hands triumphantly.) Fortune claimed that he wanted to open a new gym in North Carolina.
More importantly, he wanted to donate $20,000 to worthy local causes. He contacted Common Cause of North Carolina, the North Carolina Black Alliance, and other progressive and voter-education groups. According to people who met with him, he asked naive, even leading, questions about what his money could do. He tried to recommend his “proteges” for jobs, and awkwardly touted his lefty credentials. He described how fitness had given direction to his life, and how his ex-girlfriend, a Colombian social worker in Queens, had helped him really understand the plight of Latinx people in the United States.
“This guy just seemed odd,” says Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause. “He’s just come in from nowhere; now he’s talking about giving me $10,000, and he wants to start something—a gym—which at the time was prohibited at the time because of COVID.” Philips notes that Fortune never seemed to spend any time scouting locations for his planned gym.
Fortune’s bumbling soon had people suspecting an ulterior motive. He kept asking about activities that would violate election laws; in hindsight, his supposed mentees look an awful lot like potential infiltrators he hoped to place in targeted organizations.
His biggest mistake came when he talked his way onto a fishing trip with one of the targeted groups, claiming to be a hardened deep sea fisherman. Out on the ocean, he became profoundly seasick and spent the next 12 hours either throwing up or sleeping. Soon after—but not before his activities had been reported to the authorities—the man himself cut off contact. Twitter DMs, emails, phone—nothing.
James Fortune was in the wind.
But the would-be super-spy wasn’t hard to find. After being shown photos of him, four people targeted by James Fortune in North Carolina confirmed he is actually James Lalino, a 35-year-old living in New York City. He’s active in local Republican politics; according to a bio with the Gertrude & Morrison Parker West Side Republican Club, where he’s listed as a board member, Lalino “became a Republican at the age of 25 when he realized that progressive policies lead to social decay.” (James Lalino did not respond to requests for comment delivered via email, phone call, and text message. Project Veritas did not respond to emailed requests for comment.)
A lighting assistant by trade, Lalino’s IMDB credits include Now You See Me, the Jesse Eisenberg illusionist-caper movie, and While We're Young, the very Noah Baumbach film about aging, idealism, and holding on to your dreams. In another online bio he describes himself as “a veteran film industry lighting technician by day and political communications upstart by night.”
That’s likely a coy allusion to his long association with Project Veritas. According to internal documents and sources close to the group, Lalino is code-named “Lefty,” and can often be glimpsed in the group’s videos. That’s him ambushing CNN’s Jeff Zucker and Steve Brush on the sidewalk late last year; he’s there again, briefly appearing in a beard and sunglasses, staking out a South Carolina parking lot to pounce on members of the Sanders campaign during the Democratic primaries. Project Veritas documents show he worked on Gold Mine, the group’s mostly fruitless attempt to infiltrate Democratic primary campaigns and produce embarrassing videos about the candidates. (“Lefty” had the unfortunate luck of being assigned to Beto O'Rourke and Eric Swalwell’s doomed presidential bids.)
Lalino’s slim online trail reveals that, when not indulging in right-wing skulduggery, he’s apparently an active Crossfitter, working out at a gym in NYC’s Upper East Side; he’s dedicated enough that when in Rome in 2017, he dropped by a local Crossfit gym.
Far from being only a gym rat, though, the man who would be James Fortune also cultivates a life of mindfulness. A biography published on Community of Mindfulness New York Metro describes Lalino as a solo traveler on a cross-country train through France, when a kindly stranger introduced him to the work of Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese monk and mindfulness guru. He seemingly recommended the convenient, pocket-sized edition of Hahn’s teachings on Goodreads, and attended meetings of a meditation group dedicated to Hahn's teachings.
Lalino’s politics might not seem an obvious fit with a meditation group. In fact, according to group members, Lalino has kept his beliefs mostly quiet, while claiming to work as a private investigator or “on the conservative media news circuit.” Recently, though, Lalino emailed organizers, concerned that the group had aligned itself with the activists surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and a more politically engaged meditation community called ARISE Sangha (Awakening through Race, Intersectionality, and Social Equity).
After declaring his support for Black lives—and “brown lives, immigrants lives, cops lives, aborted babies [sic] lives, and all religions[,] sexualities[,] and personal beliefs”—he got to the core of his complaint. “I just don’t believe [our group] should take a hard left on radical social justice issues and support groups tied in with Antifa and other violent organizations that want to destroy the nuclear family, overthrow the government, and eventually literally execute the opposition,” he wrote. “It’s not a good look for the sangha [group or community], again, in my own personal opinion. I’m not the only one and the others need to speak up.”
Lalino may have not found much support for his right-wing beliefs in his sangha, but in his work as a “political communications upstart” he had plenty of well-heeled support. As NC Policy Watch laid out, the money Lalino—as James Fortune—doled out during his North Carolina sojourns came through a Georgia company registered to Jason Boles, the Republican political strategist and co-founder of Audacious Faith Inc., an evangelical Christian Church based in Georgia.
Boles, who’s connected to a web of dozens of independent political campaign committees, is a partner at RTA Strategy, founded by Rick Thompson, former executive director and current member of the Georgia Government Transparency and Campaign Finance Commission. In Georgia, donors can give a limited amount to candidates — about $17,000 for the primary, runoff and general election races combined — but there are no limits on how much they can give to “independent” committees or to the groups that fund them.
One such group run by Thompson and Boles called A Georgia for Georgians contributed $83,616 during Georgia’s Republican primary runoffs this summer. It’s unclear who funded the group. As Thompson put in the 2012 Center for Public Integrity report on Georgia’s weak campaign finance laws, “It’s ripe for the opportunity for corruption.”
Boles is also connected to Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican best known for her support of QAnon and for hours of Facebook videos spewing racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism. Greene and Boles are also both connected to Stefan Passantino, Trump’s former deputy White House Counsel, through Greene’s campaign. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation has reportedly launched an inquiry into James Fortune, including the web of connections that includes so many Republican movers and shakers.
As is often the case, pulling on one thread of right-wing dirty trickery reveals connections to many other players—reaching up to the highest levels. “James Fortune” was no different, with connections to Project Veritas, establishment Georgia Republicans, and the Trump White House. Still, plenty of questions remain unanswered, including whether Lalino had ever actually been deep sea fishing before the fateful trip that finally and completely blew his cover.