Windsor v. Project Veritas Action Fund
On Thursday, Nov. 15, the Ohio Elections Commission convened a preliminary review in Windsor v. Project Veritas Action Fund et al., for the infiltration of the campaign offices of Hillary Clinton, Ted Strickland, and the Ohio Democratic Party in 2016 by rightwing political hitman James O'Keefe and his operatives. Ohio elections law expressly prohibits embedding agents in political campaigns, who report to external principals, for the purpose of harming campaigns. Anyone with knowledge of the the crime is permitted to file a complaint under the law. I had standing in this case because of the prima facie evidence in the defendants' own video publication of their crimes.
PVAF filed a motion to dismiss based on differing interpretations of my standing to file and of the two-year statute of limitations, the latter of which was the decisive element of the review. My attorney, Yael Bromberg, argued that the two-year mark should be October 5, 2018, two years from the publication of the sting video, as the publication was a continuum of the infiltration. PVAF argued that the two-year mark should be September 26, 2018, the date their operative was last physically inside the campaign. I had mailed the complaint on Sept. 26, 2018, and thus missed the time window under the narrower interpretation by only a matter of days. The OEC granted PVAF's motion to dismiss.
PVAF additionally argued that my claim was frivolous and that they should be awarded attorney's fees. The OEC voted unanimously AGAINST their motion, finding that my claim had merit. Thus, it is clear that this case was dismissed on procedural grounds only, and not on the merit, and that James O'Keefe should think twice about conducting stings in Ohio elections going forward.
You might ask why I waited so late in the period to file. Well, that's a good question. I never wanted to be the plaintiff; I wanted the victims to file. I discovered the Ohio statute in early 2017, and the Strickland video that summer. I spoke with campaign staffers who were filmed and management staff who knew of the infiltration. They were reluctant to come forward and expose themselves to further harassment from rightwing trolls. The staffers have zero incentive to come forward individually, especially once campaigns lose and are disbanded.
PVAF's election stings are published as October surprises to achieve maximum negative impact on candidates when voters are paying the most attention. The campaigns are in the final run up to the election and focusing all of their resources -- time, labor, and money -- on electing their candidate. Campaigns are short-lived organizations. They are incentivized to try to quash the stories, not to bring legal action, which requires long-term commitment. After losing a race, campaigns, too, have even less incentive to come forward.
In late August of this year, after trying for many months to get victims to come forward, I realized that we were approaching the end of the statute of limitations, and that the stakeholder with the most incentive to file was the Ohio Democratic Party. I made a last ditch effort to alert the ODP, which declined to file amidst the run up to the midterms. With no other option and the clock running out, I filed the complaint myself. And it ended up being too late.
I hope that state parties will step up to the plate to prevent and combat the infiltration of their campaigns in the lead up to 2020. O'Keefe promised to ramp up his election operations for the midterms, and he did just that. In 2016, Project Veritas Action targeted the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, and the U.S. Senate campaigns of Russ Feingold (WI), Deborah Ross (NC), and Ted Strickland (OH). In the 2018 cycle, they published stings in two gubernatorial races, one House race, and six Senate races.
PVAF made clear in the Ohio case that it intends to continue its political espionage efforts. It argues that embedding agents within the campaigns of its ideological opponents is within its First Amendment rights to free press. But this is not an issue of press freedom, it is one of election integrity. It is imperative that the DNC take this threat seriously.
What I said in our press release ahead of the hearing bears repeating:
It is one thing to conduct opposition research on your political opponents. It is quite another to fraudulently misrepresent yourself to become an agent of an opposing campaign and thereby gain access to sensitive political campaign information. James O’Keefe and his political spies are the intellectual heirs of Lee Atwater and Richard Nixon, and that should worry anyone who cares about fair elections.