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Josh Gerstein

Project Veritas faces off in court with Democratic activist

James O’Keefe, founder of Project Veritas, meets with supporters during the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 28, 2020, in National Harbor, Md. | Samuel Corum/Getty Images

A long-delayed legal showdown between a veteran Democratic activist and Project Veritas, a controversial group specializing in hidden camera video stings, kicked off Thursday with jurors hearing starkly different perspectives on a complex undercover operation the group mounted at the height of the presidential campaign in 2016.

During opening arguments in a civil trial in federal court in Washington, a lawyer for a Democratic operative who filed suit over the sting, Robert Creamer, said his client was targeted as part of a political espionage campaign aimed at embarrassing Hillary Clinton and helping Donald Trump secure the presidency.

Longtime Democratic lawyer Joseph Sandler said Creamer and his organizations “were the victims of political spying conducted by Project Veritas” just weeks before the presidential election.

“What the evidence will show is a carefully, painstaking web of lies concocted by Project Veritas,” said Sandler.

He said that when Project Veritas made its videos public in October 2016, it contended that one of Creamer’s associates boasted about disrupting Trump campaign events as part of a so-called “bracketing” effort. Creamer and his groups are seeking more than $1 million in damages in the case and say they lost more than $640,000 in contracts with the Democratic National Committee and labor-affiliated organizations.

But an attorney for Project Veritas said its personnel who pulled off the caper were acting in the proud tradition of American journalism when they assumed fake identities to interact with Creamer and recorded those exchanges — and when one operative obtained an internship at Creamer’s offices in Washington for several weeks in the early fall of 2016.

“They're journalists in the finest American tradition called muckraking,” said Paul Calli, an attorney for Project Veritas. The founder of the group, James O’Keefe, is a defendant in the case and sat at the defense table Thursday, taking notes on the proceedings and occasionally conferring with Calli.

Numerous targets of Project Veritas have accused the group of deceptive editing, but Calli argued Thursday that the group’s undercover work actually involves less spin than more narrative versions of journalism.

In the videos, a longtime associate of Creamer, Scott Foval, can be heard seeming to boast of inciting violence at Trump events. “In the lines at Trump events, we’re starting anarchy here,” Foval said in one recording.

“They didn’t shove the words into their mouths,” Calli said of Foval, Creamer and others in the videos. “When undercover journalists work, you get it right from the source.”

In his opening, Calli minimized Project Veritas’ actions attacking liberal politicians, unions and mainstream media outlets, insisting that the group is simply reporting on excesses and scandals as part of a “beat” covering “the left of politics.”

“Journalists can have a beat and they can have a focus and there’s nothing wrong with that,” the attorney said.

Calli emphasized that when Project Veritas put the videos online, many mainstream outlets aired portions of them and made predictions about their impact on the presidential campaign. “It goes beyond viral,” he said.

However, Sandler said the group’s actions had all the hallmarks of political dirty tricks and little in common with the usual traits of news reporting.

“We will prove to you that this was not investigative journalism,” Sandler insisted, noting that Project Veritas never reached out to Creamer for comment or explanation before posting their exposé on YouTube. “The evidence will demonstrate that they went about this in a way that no real journalist would.”

Project Veritas’ claims to be conducting journalism have stirred heated debate in traditional journalistic circles, with many ethics experts denouncing the group’s tactics of deception and its coziness with politicians. However, some First Amendment advocates have warned that subjecting the provocateurs to lawsuits, as well as criminal investigation or prosecution, could cramp the space mainstream reporters have to carry out their craft.

Creamer isn’t suing for libel or being portrayed in a false light, but contends in the suit that Project Veritas and its operatives carried out a fraud and violated D.C. and federal wiretap laws. The framing of the suit dodges some of the obstacles that defamation suits typically encounter, particularly when brought by public or political figures.

While hidden-camera video stings have fallen out of favor in recent years at major news organizations, from the 1970s into the 1990s, such projects were a staple of television newsmagazines. Some news outlets spent lavishly on undercover investigations, with perhaps the most famous instance the Chicago Sun-Times’s purchase of a run-down bar in 1977 to expose city inspectors who were taking bribes.

Still, some of Project Veritas’ tactics seemed to go even further. Their organization actually wired $20,000 from a bank in Belize to one of Creamer’s groups in order to gain further entrée into his world.

“What real news organization would pay $20,000 under false pretenses?” Sandler asked.

Ultimately, the outcome of the trial may not turn on questions of journalistic ethics, but on whether the Project Veritas operative who gained the internship, Allison Maass, violated a particular legal, or “fiduciary,” duty owed to Creamer and his organizations when she took the internship. Maass, now an associate producer at Fox Business Network, is a defendant in the case.

Sandler suggested that the circumstances of the internship, like the use of an access card to enter the offices of Creamer’s Democracy Partners in Washington, indicated some level of confidentiality in its work.

However, when Creamer took the stand around noon Thursday as the first witness in the trial, he quickly conceded that no one ever insisted that Maass — who used the name Angela Brandt — sign a non-disclosure agreement.

Creamer said he told Maass on her first day of work that she would be asked to sign such an agreement by the end of the day and that she should consider what went on in the office confidential.

But when Sandler asked if she’d actually been presented with the NDA, Creamer said: “Unfortunately not.”

“Somebody just neglected to ask her to sign. We were not appropriately rigorous in that respect,” Creamer added.

Creamer also forcefully denied any involvement in causing or provoking violence at Trump rallies.

“We were particularly careful to ensure that our supporters and their supporters did not come into contact with each other,” he said. “It was in our interest and the interest of the country to avoid violence at these events.”

Creamer, 75, is the husband of Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a fact that he mentioned to jurors early in his testimony.

In 2006, he was sentenced to five months in federal prison after pleading guilty to felony bank fraud and willful failure to pay taxes. However, U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman issued a written order Thursday reaffirming a ruling last year that Project Veritas’ lawyers could not mention Creamer’s convictions in front of the jury.

The judge, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, said the convictions for a check kiting scheme aimed at keeping afloat a liberal public interest group in Illinois were too old to be admissible.

Friedman also said the information was less relevant to Creamer’s credibility because the statutes he was convicted under don’t always require a showing of misrepresentation or false statements.

The jury of four men and five women selected earlier this week listened attentively during the arguments and testimony Thursday, with several jurors appearing to take detailed notes on the proceedings.

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