The office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman laid groundwork to revoke the charitable status of the conservative group Project Veritas last week, claiming it had misled the state about its president James O’Keefe’s past criminal conviction.
In response, Project Veritas is floating a surprising defense: that O’Keefe, the group’s founder and its most prominent public face for the past eight years, was actually a minor player during its early days.
“James was not a Director or Officer of the company at that time,” spokesman Stephen Gordon told The Daily Beast on Tuesday.
The question of O’Keefe’s level of involvement in Project Veritas’ origins could very well determine the group’s future in New York state, where O’Keefe lives and Project Veritas is headquartered. If Schneiderman concludes that Project Veritas ran afoul of state regulations, it could be barred from soliciting contributions in New York.
The attorney general’s office has suggested that Project Veritas may have misled the state on its 2011 application for a charitable solicitation license by indicating that none of its “officers, directors, or principal executives” had previously been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor.
O’Keefe pleaded guilty the year before to one misdemeanor count of illegally entering government property under false pretenses. The charge came in the midst of an undercover operation at then-Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-LA) New Orleans office.
But Project Veritas says it fully complied with New York laws when it didn’t note O’Keefe’s conviction because he wasn’t a senior enough to meet the threshold in the application form.
“On all of New York’s charity forms, Project Veritas provided all the information requested,” O’Keefe told The Daily Beast. “If Project Veritas is required to provide the New York Attorney General with additional information about this matter, Project Veritas will do so.”
While it’s true that the application the group filed with New York state came before O’Keefe held an official leadership position, he was also deeply involved with Project Veritas activities at the time, pulling off high-profile undercover video stings targeting left-wing community organizing outfit ACORN and employees of National Public Radio. When the group applied for tax exempt status in June 2010, it listed O’Keefe as its highest paid employee, with the title of “founder.” By the next year, he was listed in public records as its president.
The legal hair-splitting represents a rare defensive posture for O’Keefe, who is more often found surreptitiously targeting employees of Democratic or progressive organizations with hidden camera exposes. His latest project, a botched sting of The Washington Post, has placed renewed scrutiny on the group. One of its undercover videographers failed to convince Post reporters to run a fake story designed to discredit sexual assault allegations against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.
It was the effort to trip up the Post that led Schneiderman’s office to renew its scrutiny of the group. But disputes over the compliance and accuracy of Project Veritas’ disclosures extend beyond New York. A Daily Beast review of public records reveals at least five other states in which O’Keefe’s criminal record was not listed. In some of those cases, penalties were levied against the group because of that lack of disclosure.
“Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a group known for its deceptively-edited videos would show a pattern of deceiving state charity regulators,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal and FEC reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group.
In New Mexico, Project Veritas faces identical issues to those in New York. The group used a generic application form that it submitted to state regulators in 2010. The form requires the same disclosure about criminal convictions of any “officers, directors, or principal executives,” which the group insists did not include O’Keefe at the time.
In 2015, both Utah and Mississippi revoked the group’s charitable solicitation license over paperwork that failed to disclose O’Keefe’s conviction. O’Keefe continued fundraising in Mississippi despite that suspension, and the state subsequently levied a $1,857.20 fine against the group. Project Veritas eventually decided to withdraw from Mississippi. A database of registered charities in Utah currently does not include Project Veritas.
O’Keefe also failed to disclose his criminal conviction in paperwork in North Carolina, where Project Veritas was previously fined before the state reinstated its charitable solicitation license.
O’Keefe says he had disclosed his criminal record in previous filings with all three of those states (Utah, Mississippi, and North Carolina), and did not realize he needed to do so in each annual registration renewal—despite the forms for all of those renewals containing the same “yes or no” question.
O’Keefe also failed to disclose his convictions in Project Veritas’ charitable solicitation license in Maine. He did so again in two additional annual renewals, according to a state of Maine investigation. The state also noted that the group had failed to disclose that it had been sanctioned in other states stemming from similar failures to disclose that criminal record.
That appears to be a recurring problem in Project Veritas’ charitable solicitation applications in California as well. Forms in that state ask, “During this reporting period, were any organization funds used to pay any penalty, fine or judgment?” Despite having admitted such fines to other state regulators, Project Veritas answered “No” to that question in its 2011 registration and every subsequent annual renewal on file with the state.
In statements sent to The Daily Beast, O’Keefe and Gordon declined to directly address disclosure discrepancies in other states save to downplay the issue in general. “Mr. O’Keefe’s conviction was disclosed in several states,” O’Keefe said, in third person. “Furthermore, this information has been reported in the national media.”
Experts, meanwhile, said it was reasonable for Schneiderman and other regulators to hold groups like Project Veritas to high standards in their pursuit of tax benefits.
“Nothing prohibits an individual with a criminal history from running or being associated with a charity,” said Fischer. “But that background must be disclosed and described.”