Conservative provocateur James O’Keefe is facing a $1 million federal lawsuit over his group’s undercover video sting against Democratic organizations and activists in the weeks before last year’s presidential election.
O’Keefe and his organization posted some of the videos online last October, purporting to show efforts by Democrats to provoke violence at Donald Trump’s campaign rallies and events.
The recordings led two Democratic operatives, Robert Creamer and Scott Foval, to leave their posts even as they decried O’Keefe’s tactics.
In the new civil lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Washington Thursday, Creamer, his Strategic Consulting Group and a related firm called Democracy Partners accuse O’Keefe and several colleagues of conspiring to violate federal and District of Columbia laws against the secret recording of private conversations.
The suit alleges that O’Keefe arranged for a cohort, Allison Maass, to obtain an internship at Democracy Partners under a false name and false pretenses. Maass agreed to keep confidential information she was privy to, including efforts to "bracket" Trump events on behalf of the Democratic National Committee, the suit claims.
O’Keefe in an interview said that the team at his guerilla investigative non-profit Project Veritas “didn’t break any laws” in its investigation, and he cast the lawsuit as an attack on the First Amendment.
“The very nature of investigative journalism is being put on the line when they try to shut me down,” he said. “They’re not going to shut me down. It’s not going to happen,” he said.
O’Keefe became a conservative superstar after pulling off a brazen 2009 hidden camera sting that was credited with bringing down the liberal organizing group ACORN. His star dimmed slightly after a spat of bad press over his May 2010 guilty plea to entering a federal building under false pretenses during a botched sting of Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and another botched sting of a CNN reporter in August 2010.
But he told POLITICO Thursday that Project Veritas had a $5-million budget last year and was preparing to hire a slew of employees to conduct additional undercover investigations, including one into “who’s funding these lawsuits.”
Among the claims in Creamer’s suit: Maass allegedly provided a fake name and Social Security number to Creamer so she could attend a meeting at the White House in September 2016. "On the day of the White House meeting, Maass claimed to feel ill and did not attend the meeting," the suit says.
O’Keefe objected particularly vigorously to the Social Security number charge, asserting “We didn’t make fake Social Security numbers. We would never do that,” he said in an interview. “Our reporter was invited to the White House. We didn’t go, because we can’t break the law … because I’m not going to make a fake Social Security number.”
He said he was “willing to put my reputation on the line and say under oath that I didn’t do that,” adding that the claim in the lawsuit “brings the whole thing into question. Everything.”
O’Keefe also suggested that the suit may be partly motivated to divert attention away from an investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Justice into the parts of the videos showing Foval, a Wisconsin-based liberal operative, appearing to boast that he had arranged for people to incite violence at Trump rallies.
Documents released by the Wisconsin DOJ in April concluded that the videos do not show evidence of any crimes, but the state attorney general later said the probe was still open. O’Keefe said the Wisconsin “attorney general is investigating [Foval], which is probably why they’re doing this.” The Creamer lawsuit “is to change the narrative,” O’Keefe added.
The suit also says that O’Keefe turned over the raw videos to Circa News, which is owned by Sinclair Broadcasting Group. After meetings with Creamer and his attorney, Sinclair decided not to run a planned four-part series based on the sting, according to the suit. However, O’Keefe’s Project Veritas released much of the video footage online and through social media.
Maass, who now appears to work for Circa, did not immediately respond to a social media message seeking comment on the suit.
Whether unpaid interns owe a special duty of care or confidentiality to the places they work is an unresolved legal question that has fueled past litigation, including a suit the Council on American-Islamic Relations brought over a sting operation carried out at their office on behalf of a conservative group.