Statement | The jury finds that Project Veritas is responsible for infiltrating democracy partners

On Thursday night, a jury in DC’s federal courthouse returned a verdict against Project Veritas in a case stemming from its 2016 efforts to infiltrate Democracy Partners, a progressive political consulting firm that assisted Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. The verdict, which included $120,000 in damages, followed about a week of testimony in the case and a day of jury trial.

The ruling quashes claims by lawyers for Project Veritas, the video sting operation founded by James O’Keefe, that its four-part video series on Democracy Partners amounted to old-fashioned journalism.

“We thank the jury for its decision and are deeply grateful for the time and effort the members of the jury spent on our case,” Democracy Partners said in a statement. “Hopefully today’s decision will help deter Mr O’Keefe and others from carrying out these kinds of political espionage operations.”

In a statement Thursday evening, O’Keefe announced that Project Veritas will appeal the verdict. “The jury did indeed rule that investigative journalists owe a fiduciary duty to the subjects they investigate,” O’Keefe said in a statement, also noting that “investigative journalists must not deceive the subjects they investigate.” O’Keefe was a constant presence at the trial, as were several other Project Veritas employees.

At issue were two civil charges brought by Democracy Partners in their 2017 suit — that Project Veritas engaged in wiretapping and fraudulent misrepresentation when it used false identities, bios and pretenses to gain the trust of Democracy Partners co-founder Robert Creamer and others. Project Veritas planted an intern – Allison Maass, who introduced herself under the pseudonym “Angela Brandt” – in the company’s offices, where she recorded the whole thing from a camera attached to a button on her shirt.

“False, false, false,” Joseph Sandler, attorney for Democracy Partners, said in his closing statement Wednesday.

Arguments in the case involved dueling descriptions: Democracy Partners claimed that Project Veritas under O’Keefe orchestrated a “political spy operation” to help candidate Donald Trump; Project Veritas said it followed in the great tradition of American journalists gathering their news by going undercover. In his closing statement, Paul Calli, a lawyer for Project Veritas, referenced the glory days of the late “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace, once a virtuoso of undercover journalism and ambush interviews.

“Mike Wallace with his hidden camera,” said Calli, who said he could still hear the “tick-tick-tick” of the iconic “60 Minutes” clock. He did not mention that Wallace moved away from undercover tactics as his career matured. “I have no doubt that what we started has become a plague … we got caught up in the drama more than we got caught up in going after the facts,” Wallace said in a 2006 CNN interview.

The reference to Wallace drives the larger dynamic looming above Democracy Partners v. Project Veritas. If nothing else, the trial revealed the unethical lengths to which O’Keefe’s organization will go to secure footage that explodes on the Internet, as well as the widening gap between Project Veritas and traditional news organizations when it comes to undercover reporting methods. Long before O’Keefe established Project Veritas in 2011, American journalists were falling out of love with undercover tactics — a break helped by Food Lion’s 1995 suit against ABC News for its secret exposure of the grocery giant’s unsavory meat-handling practices.

Regular business has therefore spent the last few decades either abjuring undercover work or narrowing the circumstances when warranted. “Undercover reporting can be a powerful tool,” wrote Greg Marx in CJR in 2010, “but it’s one that must be used with caution: against only the most important targets, and even then only when accompanied by solid traditional reporting.”

Meanwhile: Court documents and testimony show that Project Veritas, in putting together its four-part “Rigging the Election” video series about Democracy Partners, did the following:

· Constructed false identities and narratives to deceive democratic agents;

· Offered cash bonuses to employees for obtaining certain content from survey targets;

· Made a $20,000 donation to a progressive organization to “keep mouths watering” at Democracy Partners, according to testimony from a Project Veritas employee;

· Created a voter fraud scheme and proposed it to Creamer, co-founder of Democracy Partners.

The last one is a dud. A representative of Project Veritas — Daniel Sandini, who does business as “Charles Roth” — hatched an initiative in which operators would register foreign residents and even undocumented immigrants using employer IDs and addresses of foreclosed properties, according to court records and testimony . These people would be “surrogate voters” who would make up for the masses who had been disenfranchised by voter ID laws.

Of course it screamed voter fraud. Creamer never bit the scheme and testified that he considered “Roth” to be “well-intentioned” but ignorant of voting laws. And here’s the kicker: Even though it was Project Truth who promoted the idea, hammered its lawyer Democracy partners at trial for not doing enough to distance himself from “Roth” after pitching the “surrogate voter” idea.

Project Veritas must not have spent enough time reading Poynter.org for ethics guidance. “Especially since the Food Lion misrepresentation and hidden camera thing, news organizations don’t do the ‘full Ginsburg'” of undercover tactics, “where they put them all together at the same time,” says Lee Levine, a longtime First Amendment attorney. Contemporary examples of undercover stories are harder and harder to find these days, Levine says — and even in the years when the practice waned, he continues, news organizations that did embrace it was “very careful not to lie.”

Correct. Several years ago, Mother Jones decided that the best way to expose conditions in private prisons was to send in a writer to work as a guard. “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard,” by Shane Bauer, highlighted the scandalous cracks in the industry and garnered all kinds of awards. How did Mother Jones get Bauer into the Corrections Corporation of America facility? How to do it: “Shane Bauer applied for a job with the Corrections Corporation of America. He used his own name and social security number, and he noted his employment with the Foundation for National Progress, the publisher of Mother Jones. He wasn’t lying.” (Disclosure: Erik Wemple blog’s wife is a staff writer at Mother Jones.)

Maass, the Project Veritas factory in the Democracy Partners infiltration, presented a resume for his assignment. Asked at trial if it contained anything that was true, Maass replied, “No.” Like other Project Veritas employees on the stand, Maass did not shy away from confirming the deceptive measures that fueled the infiltration — what Sandler called a “web of lies induced by Project Veritas.” In his closing statement, Calli embraced the ethos of undercover reporting, claiming that Project Veritas propagates “deceit, deception and dishonesty” so that the organization can “speak truth to power.”

However, the trial was not simple a week-long seminar on journalism ethics. It was largely about prosaic legal technicalities and the tense testimony of a former union official. Following the publication of the Project Veritas videos, AFSCME withdrew from financial agreements with Creamer and affiliated organizations.

When Democracy Partners sued for fraudulent misrepresentation and illegal wiretapping—and not defamation arising from the content of the videos themselves—it had to prove that the damages stemmed from Project Veritas’ pre-publication actions: the operations and tactics themselves, it is. Former AFSCME director Scott Frey testified that the infiltration was indeed a factor in the decision to cut ties, although he also said, in question from Calli, that the video itself was an “important factor.”

That left an important verdict in the hands of jurors. Judging from the verdict, they considered the infiltration an actionable offense in itself. Too much fake-fake-fake.

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