Episode – Ep. 630
James Edward O’Keefe III (born June 28, 1984) is an American conservative political activist. He has produced secretly recorded undercover audio and video encounters, some selectively edited to imply its subjects said things they did not, with figures and workers in academic, governmental and social service organizations, purportedly showing abusive or alleged illegal behavior by representatives of those organizations. He gained national attention for his video recordings of workers at ACORN offices in 2009, his arrest and guilty plea in 2010 for entering the federal office of then-U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) under false pretenses, and the release of videos of conversations with two high-ranking, now former, NPR executives in 2011.
When his videos of ACORN workers allegedly aiding a couple in criminal planning hit the 24-hour cable news cycle, the U.S. Congress quickly voted to freeze funds for the non-profit. The national controversy resulted in the non-profit also losing most private funding before investigations of the videos were conducted. In March 2010, ACORN was close to bankruptcy and had to close or rename most of its offices. Shortly after, the California State Attorney General’s Office and the US Government Accountability Office released their related investigative reports. The Attorney General’s Office found that O’Keefe had misrepresented the actions of ACORN workers and that the workers had not committed illegal actions. A preliminary probe by the GAO found that ACORN had managed its federal funds appropriately. One of the fired ACORN workers sued O’Keefe who issued an apology and agreed to pay $100,000 in a settlement.
O’Keefe gained support from conservative media and interest groups. In 2009, the late Andrew Breitbart commissioned the activist (then 25 years old), for the option to publish new videos exclusively on BigGovernment.com. In June 2010, O’Keefe formed a 501(c)(3) organization, Project Veritas, with the stated mission to “investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud and other misconduct.”
O’Keefe grew up in Westwood, New Jersey. His home was politically “conservative but not rigidly so”, according to his father. He graduated from Westwood High School, where he showed an early interest in the arts, theater and journalism. He played the leading role in his high school’s 2002 production of the musical Crazy for You. He attained Eagle Scout, the highest rank in the Boy Scouts of America. O’Keefe started at Rutgers University in 2002 and majored in philosophy. Beginning in his sophomore year, he wrote a bi-weekly opinion column for The Daily Targum, the university’s student paper. He left the Targum and founded the Rutgers Centurion, a conservative student paper supported by a $500 “Balance in the Media” grant from The Leadership Institute.
For his first video, he and other Centurion writers met with Rutgers dining staff to demand the banning of the cereal Lucky Charms from dining halls because of its offense to Irish Americans. O’Keefe said the leprechaun mascot presented a stereotype. He intended to have officials lose either way: to appear insensitive to an ethnic group, or to look silly by agreeing to ban Lucky Charms. They expected to be thrown out of school, but the Rutgers official was courteous, took notes, and said their concerns would be considered. Rutgers staff say the cereal was never taken off the menu.
After graduating from Rutgers, O’Keefe worked for a year at the Leadership Institute (LI) in Arlington, Virginia under media specialist Ben Wetmore, whom O’Keefe calls his mentor. The institute sent him to colleges to train students to start conservative independent newspapers, but, after a year LI officials asked him to leave. According to LI president and founder Morton Blackwell, O’Keefe was “very effective and very enthusiastic” but after a year he was asked to leave because officials felt his activist work threatened the group’s nonprofit status by trying to influence legislation. Forced to choose between activism and his nonprofit work, O’Keefe chose activism.
O’Keefe has produced, misleadingly edited and distributed secretly recorded videos and audio files made during deliberately staged encounters. He has sought to “embarrass” and “damage” his targets, such as Senator Landrieu and ACORN. He has sought to maximize publicity by releasing secretly recorded videos over several days or months, often in relation to funding authorizations or significant political actions related to the subject organization. Many videos received widespread media coverage sparking significant reactions, most notably videos of ACORN which resulted in the Congress quickly freezing funds, two executive agencies canceling contracts, and several ACORN workers being fired, and videos of National Public Radio (NPR) executives which led to the resignations of CEO Vivian Schiller and NPR Foundation president Ron Schiller. Shortly before Congressional funding hearings involving NPR.
In January 2010, O’Keefe began a column on Breitbart’s website, BigGovernment.com. Breitbart stated in an interview that he paid O’Keefe a salary for his “life rights” to gain release of O’Keefe’s videos first on his website. In 2010 O’Keefe formed his own organization, Project Veritas, whose stated mission is “to investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct in both public and private institutions in order to achieve a more ethical and transparent society.”
Much of the funding for Project Veritas comes from anonymous donations through Donors Trust, a conservative, American nonprofit donor-advised fund, which according to its promotional materials, says that it will “keep your charitable giving private, especially gifts funding sensitive or controversial issues.” Notable donors include Donald Trump, who in May of 2015 donated $10,000 through his Trump Foundation.
Political and personal beliefs
O’Keefe has described his politics as “progressive radical”, although media coverage consistently paints him as a conservative. He refers to himself as a muckraker.
O’Keefe has expressed admiration for the philosophy of G.K. Chesterton and for a free press.
Planned Parenthood recordings (2008)
In 2006, O’Keefe met Lila Rose, founder of an anti-abortion group on the UCLA campus. They secretly recorded encounters in Planned Parenthood clinics. Rose posed as a pregnant teenager seeking advice (a 15-year-old girl impregnated by a 23-year-old male); they made two videos and released them on YouTube. In one, a clinic worker in Los Angeles tells Rose “that she could ‘figure out a birth date that works’ to avoid having PPLA notify police.”
In 2007 O’Keefe phoned several Planned Parenthood clinics and secretly recorded the conversations. He posed as a donor, asking if his donations would be applied to needs of minority women. When told they could be, he made “race-motivated” comments. By audio recordings, workers at clinics in six other states reportedly agreed to accept his donation under similar terms.
Planned Parenthood of California filed a “cease and desist” order against Lila Rose, charging that she was violating state laws against secret recordings. The order required her to remove the videos from YouTube and give all the recordings to the organization. She complied through her attorney.
After O’Keefe’s four audio recordings were publicized in 2008, Planned Parenthood of Ohio issued a public response, saying the worker’s words were “a violation of any policy, and it’s very upsetting.” The CEO said, “Planned Parenthood has a long history of social justice.” Other offices noted the wide variety of services the organization offers to low income communities. African-American leaders called for withdrawal of public financing of the organization. No funding was withdrawn.
ACORN videos (2009)
Main article: ACORN 2009 undercover videos controversy
O’Keefe has selectively edited and manipulated his recordings of ACORN employees, as well as distorted the chronologies. Several journalists and media outlets have expressed regret for not properly scrutinizing and vetting his work. In September 2009, O’Keefe and his associate, Hannah Giles, published edited hidden camera recordings in which Giles posed as a prostitute and O’Keefe as her boyfriend, a law student, in an attempt to elicit damaging responses from employees of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an advocacy organization for 40 years for persons of low and moderate income. A Washington Post reporter wrote that O’Keefe “said he targeted ACORN for the same reasons that the political right does: its massive voter registration drives that turn out poor African Americans and Latinos to cast ballots against Republicans.” The Washington Post later issued a correction, saying, “Although ACORN registers people mostly from those groups, the maker of the videos, James E. O’Keefe, did not specifically mention them.”
The videos were recorded during the summer of 2009 and appeared to show low-level ACORN employees in six cities providing advice to Giles and O’Keefe on how to avoid detection by authorities of tax evasion, human smuggling and child prostitution. He framed the undercover recordings with a preface of him dressed in a “pimp” outfit, which he also wore in TV media interviews. This gave viewers, including the media, the impression that he had dressed that way when speaking to ACORN workers. However, he actually entered the ACORN offices in conservative street clothes (the sleeve of his dress shirt is visible on camera). Furthermore, the ACORN employees involved reported his activities to the police after he left.
On April 10, 2012, the political gossip site Wonkette reported that Andrew Breitbart had signed a $120,000 contract for “life rights” by O’Keefe and Giles based on the ACORN videos. The contract was paid in monthly increments of $5,000. Giles ultimately received $32,000 before parting ways with Breitbart over what she described in legal depositions as “a conflict of visions”. O’Keefe ultimately received $65,000.
Reception and lawsuit
After the videos were released through the fall of 2009, the U.S. Congress quickly voted to freeze federal funding to ACORN. The Census Bureau and the IRS terminated their contract relationships with ACORN. By December 2009, an external investigation of ACORN was published that cleared it of any illegality, while noting that its poor management practices contributed to unprofessional actions by some low-level employees. In March 2010, ACORN announced it would dissolve due to loss of funding from government and especially private sources.
On March 1, 2010, the district attorney for Brooklyn at that time found there was no criminal wrongdoing by the ACORN staff in New York. In late March 2010, Clark Hoyt, then public editor for The New York Times, reviewed the videos, full transcripts and full audio. Hoyt wrote “The videos were heavily edited. The sequence of some conversations was changed. Some workers seemed concerned for Giles, one advising her to get legal help. In two cities, ACORN workers called the police. But the most damning words match the transcripts and the audio, and do not seem out of context.”
The California Attorney General’s Office granted O’Keefe and Giles limited immunity from prosecution in exchange for providing the full, unedited videotapes related to ACORN offices in California. The AG’s Report was released on April 1, 2010, concluding that the videos from ACORN offices in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Bernardino had been “severely edited.” The report found there was no evidence of criminal conduct on the part of ACORN employees nor any evidence that any employee intended to aid or abet criminal conduct. It found that three employees had tried to deflect the couple’s plans, told them ACORN could not offer them help on the grounds they wanted, and otherwise dealt with them appropriately. Such context was not reflected in O’Keefe’s edited tapes. The AG’s Report noted that “O’Keefe stated that he was out to make a point and to damage ACORN and therefore did not act as a journalist objectively reporting a story”. It found no evidence of intent by the employees to aid the couple. The report also noted “a serious and glaring deficit in management, governance and accountability within the ACORN organization” and said its conduct “suggests an organizational ethos at odds with the norms of American society. Empowering and serving low-and moderate-income families cannot be squared with counseling and encouraging illegal activities.”
The AG’s report confirmed that ACORN employee Juan Carlos Vera, shown in O’Keefe’s video as apparently aiding a human smuggling proposal, had immediately reported his encounter with the couple to a Mexican police detective at the time to thwart their plan. Following the AG’s report, that employee, who had been fired by ACORN after the video’s release, sued O’Keefe and Giles in 2010. He alleged invasion of privacy and cited a California law that prohibits recordings without consent of all parties involved. On the basis of the selectively edited videotape which O’Keefe released, Vera appeared to be a willing participant in helping with O’Keefe’s plan to smuggle young women into the United States illegally. However, authorities confirmed that Mr. Vera immediately contacted them about O’Keefe and that he had also encouraged O’Keefe to share as much information as possible about his scheme and gather further evidence of O’Keefe’s purported illegal activities, which could then be used by prosecutors to bring charges against O’Keefe for attempted human trafficking. Due to O’Keefe’s release of the dubiously edited video, intentionally designed to “prove” that ACORN employees were ready and willing to engage in illicit activities, Mr. Vera lost his job and was falsely accused of being engaged in human trafficking. O’Keefe noted that he “regrets any pain” caused by his reckless actions, though O’Keefe’s lawyer dismissed any claimed injury incurred by Vera and stated that the payment was a “nuisance settlement”.
O’Keefe moved for summary judgment in his favor, arguing that the plaintiff had no reasonable expectation that the conversation would be private. In August 2012, the federal judge hearing the case denied O’Keefe’s motion for summary judgment. The judge ruled that O’Keefe had “misled plaintiff to believe that the conversation would remain confidential by posing as a client seeking services from ACORN and asking whether their conversation was confidential.” On March 5, 2013, O’Keefe agreed to pay $100,000 to former California ACORN employee Juan Carlos Vera for deliberately misrepresenting Mr. Vera’s actions, and acknowledged in the settlement that at the time he published his video he was unaware that Vera had notified the police about the incident. The settlement contained the following apology: “O’Keefe regrets any pain suffered by Mr. Vera or his family.”
On June 14, 2010, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) published its report finding no evidence that ACORN, or any of its related organizations, had mishandled any of the $40 million in federal money which they had received in recent years.
Senator Mary Landrieu (2010)
O’Keefe and colleagues were arrested in New Orleans in January 2010 and charged with entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony, at the office of United States Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat. His three fellow activists, who were dressed as telephone repairmen when apprehended, included Robert Flanagan, the son of William Flanagan, acting U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of Louisiana. The four men were charged with malicious intent to damage the phone system. O’Keefe said he entered Landrieu’s office to investigate complaints that she was ignoring phone calls from constituents during the debate over President Barack Obama’s health care bill. The charges in the case were reduced from a felony to a single misdemeanor count of entering a federal building under false pretenses. O’Keefe and the others pleaded guilty on May 26. O’Keefe was sentenced to three years’ probation, 100 hours of community service and a $1,500 fine. The other three men received lesser sentences.
In August 2013, O’Keefe revisited the incident by releasing a video entitled: “a confrontation with former U.S. Attorney Jim Letten on the campus of Tulane University”. Letten is a former Republican U.S. Attorney General in 2010 who recused himself from the Landrieu incident because he knew the father of one of the men involved. The video shows Letten accusing O’Keefe of “terrorizing” his [Letten’s] wife at their home, of harassing him, and trespassing on the Tulane campus. He called O’Keefe a “coward” and a “spud”, and referred to O’Keefe and his companions as “hobbits” and “scum”.
NPR video (spring 2011)
In March 2011, shortly before the US Congress was to vote on funding for National Public Radio (NPR), O’Keefe released a video of a discussion with Ronald Schiller, NPR’s senior vice president for fundraising, and associate Betsy Liley. Raw content was secretly recorded by O’Keefe’s partners Simon Templar (an alias for conservative activist Ken Larrey) and Shaughn Adeleye.
Due to questions at the time about the video’s veracity, staff of The Blaze analyzed the edited portion and compared it with the raw videotape, both of which were released in the same video. As blogger Scott Baker wrote, analysis of the full video showed that a portion was edited to intentionally lie or mislead. Much of the context of the conversation was changed and elements were transposed and chronology shifted.
In the heavily edited portion, it appears that the NPR executives were led to believe they would be meeting with representatives of a self-described Muslim group affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood that wished to donate money to NPR. At times in the video, Schiller says that he will speak personally, and not for NPR. Schiller said some highly placed Republicans believed the Republican Party had been hijacked by a radical group that they characterized as “Islamophobic” and “seriously racist, racist people.” Schiller then says that unlike establishment Republicans, the growing Tea Party movement in the party “is fanatically involved in people’s personal lives and very fundamental Christian — I wouldn’t even call it Christian. It’s this weird evangelical kind of move.”
This video was released on March 8, 2011. Later in the edited video, Schiller seems to say he believes NPR “would be better off in the long run without federal funding”, explaining that removal of federal funding would allow NPR more independence and remove the widely held misconception that NPR is significantly funded by the public. But USA Today reports that on the raw tape, Schiller also says that withdrawing federal funding would cause local stations to go under and that NPR is doing “everything we can” to keep it.
In a statement released before analysis of the raw video, NPR said, “Schiller’s comments are in direct conflict with NPR’s official position … The fraudulent organization represented in this video repeatedly pressed us to accept a $5 million check with no strings attached, which we repeatedly refused to accept.”
Comparison of the raw video with the released one revealed editing that was characterized as “selective” and “deceptive” by Michael Gerson, opinion writer in the Washington Post, who wrote, “O’Keefe did not merely leave a false impression; he manufactured an elaborate, alluring lie.” Time Magazine wrote that the video “transposed remarks from a different part of the meeting”, was “manipulative” and “a partisan hit-job.”
On March 17, Martha T. Moore of USA Today reported: “According to The Blaze analysis, Ron Schiller’s most inflammatory remarks, that Tea Party members are “seriously racist”, were made as he was recounting the views of Republicans he has spoken with — although he does not appear to disagree. It also shows Schiller appearing to laugh about the potential spread of Islamic sharia law, when the longer version shows he laughed in reaction to something completely different.”
The raw video shows Schiller told the two men “that donors cannot expect to influence news coverage.” On the longer tape, he says, “There is such a big firewall between funding and reporting: Reporters will not be swayed in any way, shape or form.” The broadcast journalist Al Tompkins, who now teaches at the Poynter Institute, noted that Ron Schiller was a fundraiser, not an official affecting the newsroom. He commented on the raw tape: “The message that he said most often — I counted six times: He told these two people that he had never met before that you cannot buy coverage”, Tompkins said. “He says it over and over and over again.
Two days later, O’Keefe released a video in which Betsy Liley, senior director of institutional giving at NPR, appeared to have checked with senior management and said MEAC was cleared to make donations anonymously and NPR could help shield donations from government audits, but added that, in order to proceed, additional background information would be required, including an IRS Form 990.Liley advised the caller that NPR executives would investigate them before accepting any large donation, examining tax records and checking out other organizations that have received donations from them. Liley raises the possibility of NPR’s turning down substantial gifts and stresses the “firewall” between the revenue-generating part of NPR and its news operation.
NPR put Liley on administrative leave. In emails released following the publication of the Liley video, NPR confirmed that the official had consulted appropriately with top management and notified the purported donors of problems with their desired method of donation.
Ronald Schiller, who had already submitted his resignation back in January so that he could join the Aspen Institute, moved up his resignation after the video release when NPR put him on administrative leave. CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ronald Schiller) announced she was resigning, effective immediately.
Abbie Boudreau (2010)
In August 2010, O’Keefe planned a staged encounter with the CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau, who was doing a documentary on the young conservative movement. He set up an appointment at his office in Maryland to discuss a video shoot. Izzy Santa, executive director of Project Veritas, warned Boudreau that O’Keefe was planning to “punk” her on the boat by trying to seduce her—which he would film on hidden cameras. Boudreau did not board the boat and soon left the area.
CNN later published a 13–page plan written by O’Keefe mentor Ben Wetmore. It listed props for the boat scheme, including pornography, sexual aids, condoms, a blindfold and “fuzzy” handcuffs. When questioned by CNN, O’Keefe denied that he was going to follow the Wetmore plan, as he found parts of it inappropriate. Boudreau commented “that does not appear to be true, according to a series of emails we obtained from Izzy Santa, who says the e-mails reveal James’ true intentions.”
Following the Boudreau incident, Project Veritas paid Izzy Santa a five-figure settlement, which included a nondisclosure agreement. Funding decreased from conservative political organizations following this CNN incident.
New Jersey Teachers’ Union video (2010)
Starting October 25, 2010, O’Keefe posted a series of videos on the Internet entitled Teachers Unions Gone Wild. At the time, the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) was in negotiations with Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, over teacher pay benefits and tenure. O’Keefe obtained one video from recordings made by “citizen journalists”, whom he recruited to attend the NJEA’s leadership conference. They secretly recorded meetings and conversations with teacher participants. It featured teachers discussing the difficulty of firing a tenured teacher.
A second video featured a staged phone conversation by O’Keefe with Lawrence E. Everett, assistant superintendent of the Passaic, New Jersey city schools, in which Everett refused to commit to firing a teacher based upon the purported claim by a parent that the teacher had used the “n-word” with his child. The third video (October 26, 2010) featured audio of a voice, identified as NJEA Associate Director Wayne Dibofsky, who alleged voter fraud during the 1997 Jersey City mayoral election. The voice of Robert Byrne, Jersey City municipal clerk, was recorded on the same video; he noted that the election was monitored by lawyers for both candidates.
New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie stated at the time that nothing on the videos surprised him. NJEA spokesman Steve Wollmer said the union and its attorneys were discussing their options regarding possible legal action, although no action was ever taken. Wollmer called the videos “a calculated attack on this organization and its members”, and described O’Keefe as “flat-out sleazy”.
Medicaid videos (summer 2011)
In the summer of 2011, O’Keefe released videos of his colleagues’ staged encounters purportedly showing Medicaid fraud in offices in six states, including Maine, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, and Virginia. Following his previous strategy, he sent the releases to conservative outlets over a period of weeks. In July 2011, two conservative groups released a secretly recorded video of an encounter in Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services. In the video, an actor attempts to apply for benefits while hinting that he is a drug smuggler. Americans for Prosperity and O’Keefe said that he had similar recorded videos from offices in Ohio, Virginia and South Carolina, and believed that there was a systemic problem. Further examination of the videos concluded there was no fraud or intent to commit fraud.
A similar O’Keefe video posted on the Project Veritas web site purported to show workers at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services assisting actors posing as drug dealers in applying for benefits. His fourth Medicaid video, apparently filmed in Richmond, Virginia, was released in July 2011.
The videos received less media attention than earlier O’Keefe efforts. Generally, the state officials and representatives acknowledged potential problems but also took a measured tone in response, to allow time to fully investigate and evaluate the incidents. After viewing the video, Maine governor Paul LePage thanked the individual who took the video and noted: “The video in its entirety does not show a person willfully helping someone de-fraud the welfare system. It does show a need for further job knowledge and continuous and improved staff training.” He also stated that “…we would be six months further along in fixing the problem” if he had received the video when it was filmed. LePage directed his agency director to work on correcting the problem.
Ohio media initially reported that “a Franklin County Jobs and Family Service worker was placed on administrative leave and at least one other person was out of work” as a result of the video’s release. Ben Johnson of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services noted that benefits were never granted in the case, and that the made-up story would have been caught if the application process had proceeded. He said his office would use the video to strengthen staff training. Mike DeWine, Attorney General of Ohio, described the Ohio video as “outrageous” and intended to instruct his state’s Medicaid fraud unit to look into the incident. Ohio’s director of the Department of Job and Family Services, Michael Colbert, notified county leaders of a mandatory retraining “to ensure they can identify people trying to defraud the government.” Upon investigation by state officials, the Medicaid worker who coached O’Keefe’s operative seeking Medicaid for his father and claimed to own a yacht as well as a helipad, on how to hide their (also claimed) ownership of an $800,000 automobile had been placed on paid administrative leave.” A spokesman for Virginia governor Bob McDonnell said that he had asked state police to review the video and take whatever actions are appropriate.
In South Carolina, the director of the state’s Department of Health and Human Services said the video filmed in his state “raises concerns about how well trained and supported our staff are to handle outrageous situations.” He also worried for the safety of the state employee with the figure in the video “who could be interpreted as intimidating” and wondered why security wasn’t called.
New Hampshire Primary video (2012)
In January 2012, O’Keefe released a video of associates obtaining a number of ballots for the New Hampshire Primary by using the names of recently deceased voters. He stated that the video showed “the integrity of the elections process is severely comprised [sic].” His team culled names from published obituaries, which were checked against public voter roll information. O’Keefe said his team broke no laws, as they did not pretend to be the deceased persons when they asked for the ballots, and they did not cast votes after receiving ballots. One of his associates’ attempts was caught by a voting supervisor at the polling station who recognized that the name he gave was of a deceased individual; the associate in question left before police arrived.
Sarah Parnass of ABC News reported that the video “either exposes why voting laws are too lax or comes close to itself being voter fraud (or both)…” One media account referred to it as a stunt. New Hampshire Governor John Lynch said, “I think it is outrageous that we have out-of-staters coming into New Hampshire, coming into our polling places and misrepresenting themselves to the election officials, and I hope that they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, if in fact they’re found guilty of some criminal act.” The New Hampshire Attorney General and the US Attorney’s Office announced investigations into the video.
New Hampshire Associate Attorney General Richard Head said he would investigate the possible weaknesses in the voting system, but noted the state did not have a history of known fraud related to person[s] seeking ballot[s] in the name of a dead person or persons. Head announced he would investigate the possibility that the filmmakers committed crimes while producing the videos.
Hamline University law professor David Schultz said, “If they [O’Keefe’s group] were intentionally going in and trying to fraudulently obtain a ballot, they violated the law”, referring to Title 42, which prohibits procuring ballots fraudulently. The New Hampshire Attorney General’s office later dropped its investigation of O’Keefe for potential voter fraud in 2013.
Patrick Moran (2012)
On October 24, 2012 a video was released showing Patrick Moran, son of then-U.S. Congressman Jim Moran (D-VA), and a field director with his father’s campaign, discussing a plan to cast fraudulent ballots, which was proposed to him by someone who posed as a fervent supporter of the campaign. The person he was speaking with was a conservative activist with O’Keefe’s Project Veritas, and was secretly recording the conversation. Patrick Moran resigned from the campaign, saying he did not want to be a distraction during the election, stating:
“[A]t no point have I, or will I ever endorse any sort of illegal or unethical behavior. At no point did I take this person seriously. He struck me as being unstable and joking, and for only that reason did I humor him. In hindsight, I should have immediately walked away, making it clear that there is no place in the electoral process for even the suggestion of illegal behavior, joking or not.”
The Arlington Police department was made aware of the video and opened a criminal investigation into “every component” of the matter. On January 31, 2013, Arlington County announced that the investigation, by its police department in collaboration with the Offices of the Virginia Attorney General and the Arlington County Commonwealth’s Attorney, had concluded and that no charges would be brought. The County stated: “Patrick Moran and the Jim Moran for Congress campaign provided full cooperation throughout the investigation. Despite repeated attempts to involve the party responsible for producing the video, they failed to provide any assistance.”
U.S-Mexico border-crossing stunt (2014)
In August 2014, O’Keefe dressed up as Osama bin Laden and crossed the U.S-Mexico border in Texas in both directions to “show that our elected officials were lying to the American people” about border security. The incident was cited by U.S. Senator John McCain in Congressional hearings.
Voter fraud (2014)
In October 2014 O’Keefe and his two colleagues attempted to bait staffers for Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO) and then-U.S. Senator Mark Udall, as well as independent expenditure organizations, into approving voter fraud, according to several staffers who interacted with O’Keefe and his colleagues. Staffers began photographing O’Keefe’s crew and advising them that what they were advocating was illegal; one nonprofit said they contacted police.
Attempted Sting of Open Society Foundations (2016)
On March 16, 2016, O’Keefe attempted to call Open Society Foundations under the assumed name of “Victor Kesh”, describing himself as attached to “a, uh, foundation”[sic] seeking to “get involved with you and aid what you do in fighting for, um, European values.”[sic] O’Keefe forgot to hang up after recording the voicemail, and several more minutes of audio were recorded, revealing that he was attached to right-wing group Discover the Networks and planning a series of attempts to create embarrassing videos or other recordings of targeted groups.
US Presidential Elections (2016)
A month before the launch of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, O’Keefe’s Project Veritas was paid $10,000 by the Trump Foundation.
In October 2016, O’Keefe released a series of videos on Breitbart.com that he alleges show former national field director Scott Foval of Americans United for Change discussing planting agitators, including “mentally ill people that we pay to do shit” at Donald Trump rallies, a process they call “bird dogging”. The accuracy of the videos has been questioned, as O’Keefe’s edits have omitted necessary context, and the unedited raw footage has not been made available. Scott Foval was fired by Americans United for Change after the first video was released. Robert Creamer, husband of U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), another person featured in the video while not saying anything that appeared to be unethical or illegal, said he would be “stepping back” from the campaign so as not to become a “distraction”.
Following the publication of his videos, O’Keefe filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) against the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton and the DNC, alleging “a criminal conspiracy” involving the Clinton campaign, the DNC and three left-leaning super PACs.
O’Keefe’s actions have stirred public debate on what it means to be a journalist and on what constitutes good journalistic practice when false pretenses are used. O’Keefe has referred to himself as a “guerrilla journalist”.
Tim Kenneally and Daniel Frankel reported in March 2011 that some of O’Keefe’s supporters referred to him as the right wing’s answer to a long line of left-leaning “hybrid troublemakers who get put on the cover of Rolling Stone, like Paul Krassner and Abbie Hoffman”. In that same March 2011 article, Marty Kaplan, director of the Norman Lear Center at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, said,
“What [O’Keefe] does isn’t journalism. It’s agitpop [sic], politi-punking, entrapment-entertainment. There is no responsible definition of journalism that includes what he does or how he does it. His success at luring his prey into harming themselves is a measure of how fallible and foolish anyone, including good people, can sometimes be.”
In reporting on O’Keefe’s alleged attempt in 2010 to tamper with Senator Landrieu’s office phone system, Jim Rutenberg and Campbell Robertson of the New York Times wrote that O’Keefe practiced a kind of “gonzo journalism” and his tactic is to “caricature the political and social values of his enemies by carrying them to outlandish extremes.”
Jonathan Seidl of The Blaze, said of the first NPR video, “the video, in the end, not only raises questions about NPR, but it also raises questions about undercover, gotcha journalism that can sometimes border on entrapment.” Scott Baker of The Blaze wrote in March 2011 about the NPR videos, saying that O’Keefe was “unethical” because he calls himself an “investigative journalist” but “uses editing tactics that seem designed to intentionally lie or mislead about the material being presented.”
Later in March 2011, several journalists wrote that they regretted having given O’Keefe’s NPR videos wider circulation without scrutinizing them for themselves, given his past record and some of the objections that The Blaze first raised. They include Ben Smith, James Poniewozik, and Dave Weigel. Journalist Chris Rovzar of New York Magazine, in reporting on the NPR video, wrote that O’Keefe’s videos are “edited in a highly misleading way.”
In a March 2011 interview with O’Keefe, NPR journalist Bob Garfield described the ACORN scam:
“So let’s just recap for a moment the ACORN scenario. You lie to get into – the offices. You lie, subsequently, about the lie you told to get into the offices. You edit the pimp shot into the trailer to create the illusion that you were somehow wearing it during your sting. You go on television wearing the same pimp outfit and let interviewers observe, uncorrected, that that’s what you were wearing when you confronted the ACORN employees. If your journalistic technique is the lie, why should we believe anything you have to say?”
“Investigative reporters have used, you know, quote, unquote, “false pretenses” like To Catch a Predator, ABC’s Primetime Live. Even Mike Wallace at 60 Minutes went undercover. You go undercover in order to get to the truth. Now, is it lying? It’s a form of guerrilla theater. You’re posing as something you’re not, in order to capture candid conversations from your subject. But I wouldn’t characterize it as, as lying.”
In July 2011, The New York Times Magazine published “Stinger: James O’Keefe’s Greatest Hits”, a profile by Zev Chafets, the author of Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One. Chafets interviewed the dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, who said:
“I put James O’Keefe in the same category as Michael Moore. Some ethicists say it is never right for a journalist to deceive for any reason, but there are wrongs in the world that will never be exposed without some kind of subterfuge.”
The NYT Magazine profile of O’Keefe was sharply criticized by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic as:
“woefully incomplete, leaving readers unaware of the most damning critiques of O’Keefe’s work and unable to render an informed judgment … Through the quote he chooses, Chafets leads the reader to conclude that the core controversy is whether it’s ever okay for a journalist to mislead his subject. But the mortal sin that O’Keefe commits in the ACORN videos is misleading the audience. His videos are presented to the public in less than honest ways that go far beyond normal ‘selectivity.'”
The media response to O’Keefe’s videos released in August 2011 purportedly showing local workers aiding Medicaid fraud was more cautious. Some reporters scrutinized the staged encounters and labeled his work as a “sting”.