Project Veritas Broke Ohio Elections Law
On October 5, 2016, Project Veritas Action Fund, led by notorious rightwing political hitman James O’Keefe, published “UNDERCOVER: O’Keefe Exposes Ted Strickland’s True Positions on Coal and Guns.” The video features clips filmed surreptitiously by different operatives within the Grove City, OH coordinated campaign office of the Ohio Democratic Party for the Hillary Clinton and Ted Strickland campaigns, and within other locations. The problem for James O'Keefe and company is that embedding agents within political campaigns is illegal in the state of Ohio. The two-year statute of limitations on these open claims will run out in the next couple of weeks.
According to Ohio Revised Code 3517.21(A):
(A) No person, during the course of any campaign for nomination or election to public office or office of a political party, shall knowingly and with intent to affect the outcome of such campaign do any of the following:
(1) Serve, or place another person to serve, as an agent or employee in the election campaign organization of a candidate for the purpose of acting to impede the conduct of the candidate's campaign for nomination or election or of reporting information to the employee's employer or the agent's principal without the knowledge of the candidate or the candidate's organization...
Based on interviews and evidence provided by several ODP staffers, and evidence found within Project Veritas' own video publication, O'Keefe placed at least two people in the election campaign organizations of two candidates for the purpose of reporting information to him, without the knowledge of the candidates. O'Keefe's clear purpose was to use that information to harm those campaigns, as the video itself did not report on any criminal wrongdoing of staffers, but on their opinions of the viability of their candidate and on the candidate's stances on contentious issues.
More importantly, O'Keefe is a well-known political mercenary, with a long history of hyping "October surprises," opposition research dumps timed for maximum impact in the election cycle -- his being video releases targeting only Democrats and progressive organizations. According to a Politico report from earlier this year, "Project Veritas has made little effort to ever damage Republicans. The one example its leaders cite—a takedown of Wisconsin Senate President Mike Ellis—had the hallmarks of a contracted kill." Notably, the Ellis sting did not involve the infiltration of his campaign. Since the founding of his political advocacy arm, Project Veritas Action, in 2014, O'Keefe has only ever placed agents within the campaigns of Democrats, including those of Allison Lundergan Grimes, Mary Landrieu, Hillary Clinton, Ted Strickland, Deborah Ross, Russ Feingold, and Bernie Sanders. The infiltration of political campaigns by operatives is political espionage and is a serious threat to election integrity.
ODP staffer Priscilla Chau reached out to Veritas operative “Mike Foley,” who was a volunteer in the campaign's VoteBuilder digital campaign system, via text on September 14, 2016, the day after he had participated in a phone banking session. For approximately the next two weeks, Foley worked under the supervision of Chau, and with Andy Dickson and Will Donahue in the Grove City, Ohio office. He made phone calls, and on at least one occasion, went out with Chau to register voters.
Project Veritas itself explicitly demonstrates the infiltration of the Ohio Democratic Party campaign office by its agents, within its own video. The first two clips explicitly take place during campaign work hours, within the campaign office, discussing candidate U.S. Senate candidate Ted Strickland. Both Chau and Dickson remember that Foley asked lots of questions about Strickland's views on the environment, though none of those exchanges were included in the published video, which focused on exchanges outside of the office, on whether Strickland supported banning coal. This was a particularly contentious issue in the mining state after Hillary Clinton infamously told a CNN town hall in Columbus that year, "We are going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." It is not clear whether the operatives posing the questions on coal in the video were working for the campaign in any capacity.
Foley unsuccessfully employed a trademark Veritas tactic on multiple occasions with multiple people - luring campaign staffers into the discussion of potential voter fraud schemes. “Foley repeatedly asked me if he could register to vote in Ohio, even though he wasn’t planning on staying in the state past December,” Chau told me. “I repeatedly told him no.”
The operative was also very persistent about socializing after hours with individual campaign staffers, Chau in particular. Multiple people described his behavior toward her as romantic, and in general, as weird. Foley last met with campaign staffers at a presidential debate watch party at Dickson's apartment on Sept. 26, 2016, and tried to convince them to go out afterwards to no avail. Said Donahue, “We all had the sense that he was up to something.”
Dylan Fonner, who worked in Columbus during the 2016 primary for the Ohio Democratic Party and Ted Strickland, met a Project Veritas operative named "Laura" at a Strickland primary event. (In the general election period, he worked for Hillary for America.) She was a volunteer, and had access to the ODP computer network and primary voter information. Fonner told me that Laura had said she was visiting Columbus from New York, and that they had a six-month long flirtation including hugging and hand holding. The use of romantic behavior to build intimacy with political targets is not a journalistic practice, but one of espionage.
And to what end? The clip of Fonner in the Veritas video does not show him committing any crime, nor is he acting unethically. Fonner said, "I don't think Rob Portman is a bad guy... If Rob Portman won, it won't be the end of the world." This is truly a hard-hitting exposé.
During our interview, Fonner identified Laura from several pictures provided to him as being former long-time Veritas operative Allison Maass, who currently works for the conservative media conglomerate Sinclair Broadcasting. Maass is named as a co-defendant in lawsuits against Project Veritas from Dianne Barrow, Kimberly Koerber, Steve Wentz, and my firm, Democracy Partners. In the 2016 cycle, she embedded within the Senate campaigns of Ted Strickland and Russ Feingold, and the presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton in multiple states.
Maass' conservative political leanings are clearly demonstrated in her resumé and the photo above, where she is shown flashing a thumbs down sign while sitting with a Hillary Clinton piñata and another Veritas staffer in January of 2017. The Hillary likeness is holding a laptop with text that appears to say something about secret e-mails. On her LinkedIn, Maass says she was a correspondent for the conservative college publication Campus Reform, a project of the Leadership Institute, which is a breeding ground for conservative activists. Perhaps most famously James O'Keefe. In 2009 in Campus Reform, Leadership Institute founder and president Morton Blackwell wrote, "James O'Keefe is one of two young people who recently achieved spectacular results exposing ACORN. His revelations crippled one of the left's most powerful organizations." O'Keefe might not like to acknowledge his ideological aims, but his mentors sure do.
On what basis do O'Keefe et al justify embedding ideological warriors within Ted Strickland's campaign? This video certainly doesn't expose criminality or ethical lapses of campaign staffers, but it does echo the themes of Rob Portman's attacks on Ted Strickland. And regardless of whether O'Keefe tries to argue a flimsy First Amendment justification, Ohio law explicitly prohibits information sharing by an agent reporting to a principal outside the campaign. At least two Project Veritas operatives clearly violated the letter of the law.
Time Code Breakdown of Project Veritas' Strickland Video Clips
00:04-00:08: James O'Keefe voiceover: "Ohio Democrat Ted Strickland's campaign for Senate is floundering. We heard it not from Republicans, but from Democrats working for his campaign."
00:13-00:28: Male PV journalist/campaign volunteer going by the alias “Mike Foley” talks to ODP staffer Andy Dickson inside the Grove City, OH coordinated campaign office about the prospects for Strickland to beat GOP opponent Rob Portman. Dickson says, "It's not looking good."
00:28-00:42: Male PV journalist/campaign volunteer going by the alias “Mike Foley” talks to ODP staffer Will Donahue (currently living in Chicago), inside the Grove City, OH coordinated campaign office about the Democratic Party pulling funds from the Strickland campaign.
00:43-00:50: James O'Keefe voiceover: "And interestingly, this lead organizer for Ohio Democrats and Hillary Clinton doesn't seem to have any serious problems with Strickland's Republican opponent, Rob Portman."
00:51-01:11: PV journalist/campaign volunteer talks to Dylan Fonner, then an organizer for ODP and Hillary for America inside a restaurant. It is not clear whether this discussion occurred during work hours. Clip of Fonner saying, "I don't think Rob Portman is a bad guy... If Rob Portman won, it won't be the end of the world."
01:11-01:15: James O'Keefe voiceover: "If Strickland is elected, it may be the end of Ohio's coal industry."
01:16-01:36: Female PV journalist talks to Ohio Senate candidate Ted Strickland about his position on coal, at a fundraiser in Washington, DC.
01:43-02:50: Male PV journalist talks to Ted Strickland’s wife about his position on gun reform, location unknown.
02:50-04:02: Male PV journalist talks to Ted Strickland about his position on coal, location unknown.
04:02-05:11: Male PV journalist talks to Ted Strickland’s communications director, David Bergstein, about Strickland’s position on banning coal and guns entirely, location unknown.
05:12-05:19: Remaining two clips are replays of remarks from Strickland and his wife on coal and guns.
If you are a victim of "Mike Foley" or Allison Maass, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.