Project Veritas goes undercover as org with no money
James O'Keefe's baby is about to go kaput.
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This may be the end for right-wing organization Project Veritas.
In a letter to staff on Wednesday, the company’s HR director wrote, “In the interest of preserving the possible future existence of Project Veritas we need to put operations on pause and, as communicated since the Spring, another Reduction in Force (‘RIF’) is necessary.” That possible is doing a lot of heavy lifting.
Perhaps you haven’t heard of Project Veritas by name, but you might be familiar with its work. Remember the 2009 takedown of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a collection of advocacy groups for low-income families connected to President Barack Obama? Project Veritas was behind that, with founder James O’Keefe posing as a pimp. Or how about the videos promoted by Donald Trump’s campaign and its surrogates in 2020 that erroneously accused Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) of ballot harvesting? Yup, that was Project Veritas, too.
The Project Veritas attacks go beyond these stunts, causing real-life suffering to their subjects. ACORN was stripped of its federal funding after the sting. Omar, who had already been threatened as one of two Muslim women in Congress, became even more of a conservative target thanks to what a spokesperson at the time called “a coordinated right wing effort to delegitimize a free and fair election.”
The writing’s been on the wall for a while now, with O’Keefe getting the boot in February, and extreme financial distress leading to a series of layoffs that culminated in Wednesday’s likely death knell.
But that hasn’t prevented Project Veritas from continuing to wreak havoc, with a number of investigations aimed at teachers and school administrators. My HuffPost piece detailed the effort by PV to take down educators at four different Long Island public schools by having their operatives misrepresent themselves and surreptitiously recording these educators talking about their views on DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) and LGBTQ+ sex education. The group has also gone after gender-affirming care, election integrity, and US migrant policy.
While PV spent most of its time going after ideological foes and disrupting democracy, the impact of their work hit closer to home—specifically for journalists who had the gall to cover their unethical work.
Jesse Hicks, a Detroit-based freelance writer, co-published a story for the New Republic in August 2020 entitled, “Inside the Project Veritas Plan to Steal the Election.” He was served with a lawsuit by PV the following year. “It's a pretty jarring experience, especially as a freelancer.,” Hicks told me via text Thursday.
Hicks said he felt “mostly annoyance,” when he found out about the suit that was seeking to determine if he’d committed any crimes in the course of his reporting, “And wondering whether this kind of buffoonery was the best way to be spending their donors' money. At the time they had a pretty substantial war chest.” He estimates PV had around $16 million to spend at the time.
Hicks was represented by the ACLU of Michigan, and the suit filed in Texas was quickly dismissed for lack of standing. But that didn’t erase what he’d been through: Two PV reporters, Bobby Harr and Anthony Wray showed up at his door in 2021. They “pretended to have found an iPhone in my little public library. Once I came outside they started asking me repeatedly if I'd ever been deposed. They didn't really have any other talking points.” They even used footage of Hicks in a few videos.
“I think it was both a convenient cudgel to use against adversarial reporting and part of a genuine panic on his part about his [O’Keefe’s] notoriously inept crew leaking to the press,” Hicks says in retrospect. “Part mole hunt, part SLAPP suit.”
I asked Hicks what he thinks PV’s legacy will be, and here’s what he had to say:
I think O'Keefe's big innovation, basically a generation ago now in media time (the ACORN "sting" was 2009), was stovepiping misleading right-wing "investigations" to mainstream media -- which often took him seriously, only to later realize they'd been duped. You could only do that so many times, and whatever cachet PV had among establishment journalists dwindled pretty rapidly. Eventually they had more of a reputation for botched stings than for real journalism. Which I think suited O'Keefe fine, as he seems like a narcissist.
Being taken seriously by journalists may have been a big part of his earlier persona, but like much of right-wing media, he was increasingly speaking ONLY to donors and true believers. He has enough of a brand within those insular circles that he may be able to ride the wing-nut welfare gravy train for a while, but I don't think any of us will have much to say about any "legacy" for Project Veritas itself. As the right-wing itself has become more feral, so has its media. PV was made obsolete by much stranger successors who don't bother trying to reach beyond people who are already inside the bubble.
Current Project Veritas CEO Hannah Giles certainly sees the organization’s mission as much more universal.
“America needs a free press, not corporate media, that regurgitates talking points from the powers that be,” she’s quoted as saying on the company website. “Courage and independence define Project Veritas. As the country’s most important investigative news organization, we will pursue our mission to shine light on the darkest corners of power in America."
(Giles has a long history at PV: When she was just 20, she posed as a sex worker along with O’Keefe’s pimp in the 2009 ACORN video.)
One of the staffers involved in the Long Island schools investigation was James Lalino, who was part of layoffs to PV editorial staff in August. At the time, according to the Daily Beast, Lalino wrote to Giles in the company-wide group chat, “Thanks for lying to me yesterday and telling me I wasn’t getting laid off. Awesome working with you. Thanks for giving it to me straight when I asked, you taught me a valuable lesson about dealing with snakes.”
I reached out to Lalino—who was less than pleased with my earlier reporting—to see how he felt about the news that PV was suspending operations. “It’s a bitter feeling looking back trying to make sense of how rapidly everything changed,” he wrote via text. “None of us realized how fragile the situation actually was during the lead up to O’Keefe’s departure.”
He then touted what he saw as accomplishments that came as a result of his work. “I stand by all the reporting my journalist team did this year. We crushed it.”
On another note, I’m publishing a big exclusive story in the coming days. It’s been an incredible amount of important work, and I hope you’ll consider a paid subscription so I can keep pursuing these ambitious projects. I appreciate it so very much.