Given his handsomely paid occupation—tricking unsuspecting victims, especially mainstream journalists, into blurting something potentially career-ending into hidden cameras and microphones, and then blasting it online—it’s surreal to hear James O’Keefe, the founder and chairman of Project Veritas, brag about his personal ethics and integrity.
“I try to conduct myself with such a high degree of integrity,” O’Keefe told The Daily Beast this week as he celebrated yet another notch on his metaphorical gun—the suspension of veteran ABC News correspondent David Wright. “We are very blessed and we have these core values, which I guess are rare. We stand on principle. I will never ever settle a lawsuit or bear false witness. I will never ever not stand on integrity.”
Exploring the outer limits of chutzpah, O’Keefe elaborated: “We have a saying at Project Veritas: We call it ‘The 12 Jurors on Our Shoulder Rule.’…We try to conduct ourselves like there are 12 jurors watching us at all times. That’s what I tell my staff.”
O’Keefe, who studied philosophy at Rutgers University in his native New Jersey and was a right-wing campus journalism firebrand, likes to cite as inspiration various intellectuals and authors such as the late media theorist Marshall McLuhan (whom he mispronounces as “McLellan”) and the still-living journalism ethicist Philip Meyer as inspirations for his questionable methods.
Meyer, however, rejects the honor, telling The Daily Beast: “Good grief.”
O’Keefe has come a long way from his “guerilla media” days a decade ago as a self-styled conservative avenger who once masqueraded as a pimp sporting a fedora, cane, and his grandma’s tatty chinchilla fur in order embarrass the liberal establishment.
His 2018 compensation was $395,940 in salary and benefits, according to Project Veritas’s latest publicly available federal tax filing. Meanwhile, his Mamaroneck, New York-based operation, classified by the IRS as a tax-exempt charity, raised $8,677,317 that year, much of it in anonymous contributions funneled through the right-leaning DonorsTrust fund, and spent $9,696,338—with $735,298 charged to legal fees alone.
O’Keefe claimed Project Veritas boasts more than 10,000 individual donors and more than 50 full-time employees—including Emmy-winning former CBS News producer, and convicted David Letterman blackmailer Joe Halderman (who declined an interview request). O’Keefe’s staffers keep busy recruiting undercover “insiders” in news organizations and government agencies (“people who are willing to put cameras on their bodies and film and lose their jobs,” O’Keefe said) or else running video stings on perceived adversaries.
Thus, on the night of the Feb. 11 New Hampshire Primary, one of O’Keefe’s operatives, who apparently introduced himself as a documentary filmmaker, secretly recorded David Wright and a long-time ABC News producer, Andy Fies, who were decompressing in a Manchester, N.H., hotel bar and lamenting the state of the television news business.
Wright, a magna cum laude Harvard grad with a master’s degree from Oxford, was especially impolitic, referring to President Donald Trump as a “dick,” announcing his preference for Elizabeth Warren over Bernie Sanders (“very old,” “not going to get anything done,” “messiah”), and declaring himself a socialist.
“It’s been really blowing up online,” O’Keefe celebrated between print interviews and radio appearances, including on Sean Hannity’s syndicated radio show; Hannity also featured the David Wright tapes on his primetime Fox News show Wednesday night. “There’s a lot of coverage,” O’Keefe continued triumphantly. “Right now the story is actually the No. 8 trending thing on Twitter in the United States.”
Having been stoking his publicity machine since dawn, O’Keefe was at the MGM Hotel in Oxon Hill, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., hiring a truck outfitted with giant video screens playing the Wright tapes on a loop as it rumbled through the streets; he was also getting ready to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference in nearby Fort Washington, where he was scheduled to give a speech on Saturday.
“I’m speaking at one o’clock, the president’s speaking at three o’clock—on the same stage, in fact,” he noted with obvious pleasure.
In 2015, a month before he announced his presidential bid, Trump sent Project Veritas a $10,000 check from his now-defunct eponymous foundation (which was shuttered, with the president paying $2 million to various charities in December 2019, to settle the New York State attorney general’s lawsuit alleging misappropriation of funds).
“This was unsolicited,” O’Keefe said about Trump’s largesse, “but he liked the Al Sharpton story we did”—a surreptitious video of Erica Garner, the now-deceased daughter of New York police choke-hold victim Eric Garner, complaining about the civil rights activist’s alleged greed: “He’s about this [flashing a hand gesture for money].”
“It ended up on the front page of the New York Post,” O’Keefe recalled. “The president sent me a copy of the Post, circled the article, and said something to the effect of ‘Good job, James O’Keefe!’ And then a donation followed.”
The day before splashing his latest scoop on David Wright, O’Keefe gave ABC News executives an advance screening. He had extended the same courtesy to ABC last November when Project Veritas acquired internal video of Good Morning America anchor Amy Robach complaining that her network sat on her newsworthy interview with Jeffrey Epstein and Prince Andrew accuser Virginia Roberts Giuffre.
“We think it’s ethical to ask for comment before we publish stories,” O’Keefe explained. “We’re trying to operate in good faith here, and do what reporters do—which is to ask for comment before we go public. And they gave us one—exclusively.”
ABC News President James Goldston promptly punished Wright, and the Disney-owned broadcast network confided to Project Veritas: “Any action that damages our reputation for fairness and impartiality or gives the appearance of compromising it harms ABC News and the individuals involved. David Wright has been suspended, and to avoid any possible appearance of bias, he will be reassigned away from political coverage when he returns.”
Wright’s suspension has been widely criticized by fellow journalists, including Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones (“It feels as if the network is caving into the pressure of a gotcha outfit that really isn’t the least bit interested in fairness”) and Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple, who wrote that ABC News should instead have issued “a declaration along these lines: We are proud of the work of David Wright, and we denounce this attempt to weaponize his affability and openness.”
O’Keefe, for his part, affected sympathy for his latest quarry. “I understand why they [ABC News] did it. On the other hand, I commend Wright for his honesty. I don’t think that someone should be suspended from their job for truth-telling.”
Wright did not respond to an email seeking comment.
All of 35, O’Keefe has been a right-wing celebrity for more than a decade, ever since he orchestrated the demise of the 40-year-old Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now—a federally funded non-profit agency that, among other missions, had registered low income and minority voters.
In the fall of 2009, O’Keefe released a series of deceptively edited hidden-camera videos in which he pretended to be the law-student boyfriend of a young prostitute, played by a female friend, as they showed up at various ACORN offices around the country and drew unwitting staffers into conversations about minimizing their income tax liability on a fictional sex-trafficking business, supposedly staffed by underage girls from El Salvador.
Outraged members of Congress swiftly cut off funding and ACORN soon went bankrupt. During TV appearances to promote his videos, O’Keefe flaunted his media-circus savvy by wearing his pimp costume.
O’Keefe, however, didn’t emerge totally unscathed. He was sued in 2011 by Juan Carlos Vera, an ACORN employee who was fired after one of the surreptitious videos falsely depicted him as a willing participant in the sex-trafficking scheme; Vera actually had called the cops to report his alarming encounter with a possible criminal. In 2013 O’Keefe settled the lawsuit with a $100,000 payment and a public apology to Vera.
Several of O’Keefe’s other attempted stings were less successful.
Among them was his 2010 scheme to lure CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau into his Catalina 27 sailboat outfitted with sex toys, condoms, and hidden cameras—an absurd, and arguably misogynistic, attempt at reality-show seduction which failed before it began when Boudreau (who’d been hoping to interview O’Keefe for a documentary on young conservatives) wisely refused to board.
“We have a view which goes back to 20th Century muckraking journalism,” O’Keefe told The Daily Beast, comparing himself to Upton Sinclair, who revealed the unsanitary conditions of the turn-of-the-century meatpacking industry, and Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago reporters Pam Zekman and William Gaines, who both worked under cover.
“There’s a book called Ethical Journalism by Philip Meyer and it talks about one-party-consent recording. The use of a concealed recording device, at least where one party is present, is not the moral quandary that our opponents would have us believe,” O’Keefe said.
Defending his David Wright sting, O’Keefe continued: “It’s not an invasion of privacy… It’s not an act of deception, in and of itself. It’s not eavesdropping, because he’s talking to strangers. And it doesn’t constitute entrapment. In newspapers, that’s just called ‘reporting’ when you quote people.”
Reached at home in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Ethical Journalism author Philip Meyer resisted the role of O’Keefe’s ethical validator.
“Good heavens... It’s distressing,” he said, when informed of O’Keefe’s claim that Meyer’s 29-year-old book legitimized his surreptitious ambushes.
“That’s not my view,” Meyer added. “I refuse to take responsibility for anything he does because of something I wrote.”
O’Keefe bristled when asked about his criminal conviction—a guilty plea to a misdemeanor —which arose out of his January 2010 arrest and jailing, along with three accomplices, after an ill-conceived visit to then-Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in New Orleans, ostensibly to debunk her claims that her phones were swamped during the Obamacare debate.
Initially charged with a felony involving phone tampering—because two of them were costumed as telephone repairmen and O’Keefe was planning to film them pretending to check Landrieu’s office phones— O’Keefe ultimately copped to a far less serious offense, entering a federal building under false pretenses, and was sentenced to 100 hours of community service, a $1,500 fine and three years of probation.
“If you did that, and you were arrested, what would you do?” he demanded, noting that Project Veritas didn’t launch until a couple of years later. “What would you do if you had no money and no organization? And they didn’t charge me with a misdemeanor, they charged me with a felony, which I didn’t commit. None of that stuff will make your article, I bet.”
O’Keefe’s brush with the law makes it illegal for O’Keefe to raise money for Project Veritas in Florida, Wisconsin and several other states—unless, of course, he receives a presidential pardon that expunges the conviction from his record.
“What’s that criminal record that you speak of? What’s the crime?” O’Keefe demanded. “If you’re gonna bring up ‘I have a criminal record and I’m gonna get pardoned by Trump,’ if that’s what you’re gonna say to me, I think you should tell me what that actual crime was—because that’s a fascinating story. I wrote an entire book about it.”
O’Keefe continued: “Did you know that I showed my driver’s license at the entrance of that building? I was a reporter with an iPhone. That’s a pretty interesting fact, isn’t it? Could it be the case that I was falsely accused?”
O’Keefe pointed out that years later, several federal prosecutors resigned amid a scandal involving their improper blogging about O’Keefe and other defendants; he claimed that his antagonists in the media were ecstatic about his legal jeopardy.
“Dave Weigel [a longtime political reporter at the Washington Post] was so happy that he tweeted about it on the journalist thing. He said he was—exclamation point, smiley face—'hoping he gets raped in prison,’ and Dave Weigel lost his job in 2010 talking about it, so a lot of journalists were very happy about it.”
At The Daily Beast’s request, Weigel (who resigned from the Post—but was ultimately rehired—after certain imprudent emails on a private server for journalists became public) checked through his saved emails from 10 years ago and found this one regarding O’Keefe: “He's either going to get a radio talk show or start a prison ministry”—hardly an attempt to joke about prison rape.
For O’Keefe, the Washington Post (for which I worked for 23 years) is something of a great white whale. He proudly touts what he calls “seven retractions” the newspaper published concerning articles about him over the years, although there only appear to be six corrections or clarifications of specific factual assertions—not more serious “retractions”—in screenshots he emailed to this writer.
And O’Keefe continues to cling to a bizarre defense, rife with revisionist history, of Project Veritas’ embarrassing attempt in late 2017 to dupe Post reporters into publishing a bogus claim by one of their operatives, Jaime T. Phillips, that, as a 15-year-old, she had been impregnated by then-Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who then drove her across state lines for a Mississippi abortion.
Instead, the Post—which won a Pulitzer for its reporting on several Alabama women who went on the record to say Moore, when he was a grown man in his early-to-mid-30s and they were teenagers, had taken them out on dates, kissed them, and in at least one case undressed and touched a 14-year-old girl sexually—ran a reverse sting on O’Keefe’s organization, complete with hidden video, as its reporting team meticulously exposed Project Veritas’s lie.
But O’Keefe insisted he has no reason to be ashamed—and refused to acknowledge that episode demonstrated, at least in this instance, that the Washington Post did its level best to ascertain the truth of the matter.
“Sometimes we get compromised in our undercover work. It happens…Sometimes you don’t get the story, or you get blown.”
Bafflingly, he compared Project Veritas’ plot to lay bare the Post’s allegedly shoddy journalism to legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s dogged Pulitzer Prize-winning work to uncover the My Lai Massacre by U.S. soldiers of more than 100 civilians during the Vietnam War.
“I can’t prove a negative,” O’Keefe said. “Just because Seymour Hersh spent weeks trying to confirm something, and he didn’t”—but he did—“he didn’t therefore say there was no Vietnam massacre.”
In an apparent bout of gaslighting, O’Keefe denied the obvious—that “my intent was to give them fake information and have them publish.” Not at all, he claimed. “My intent was to meet with them and have a conversation and publish the contents of the conversation if I obtained a story.”
The story, in this case, would have been that “these people [at the Post] were really doing some unconscionable things behind closed doors. We know that. We just haven’t gotten the story yet.”