Opinion | Project Veritas lawyer disputes ‘political spying’ narrative at trial

Project Veritas, the sting-video operation founded by James O’Keefe, is a “political spying operation” that was trying to “embarrass Hillary Clinton” when it released an October 2016 video report on a Democratic political consulting firm, argued a lawyer for the firm on Thursday in federal court.

Joseph Sandler, who represents Democracy Partners in its 2017 lawsuit against Project Veritas, denounced a “painstaking web of lies conjured by Project Veritas” in connection with the operation, which netted undercover video of Democratic operatives Robert Creamer and Scott Foval boasting about their work. They both suffered professional consequences from the exposé — Creamer stepped away from consulting on the Clinton campaign and Foval lost his job as national field director with Americans United for Change. Creamer is a co-founder of Democracy Partners, an umbrella group of political consulting firms.

Paul Calli, a lawyer for Project Veritas, rebuffed Sandler’s claims, characterizing as a “conspiracy theory” any notion that the group is a spying operation.

The remarks came during opening statements in the case — Democracy Partners v. Project Veritas — in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman. The case centers on Project Veritas’s elaborate effort in 2016 to use false identities and concocted narratives to place an intern — Allison Maass under the pseudonym “Angela Brandt” — in the offices of Democracy Partners in September 2016, in the very bustle of that year’s presidential contest. Another Project Veritas staffer — Daniel Sandini posing as “Charles Roth” — ingratiated himself with Democracy Partners via a donation to a progressive group and laid the groundwork for “Brandt’s” internship.

Project Veritas is defending itself against charges of fraudulent misrepresentation and unlawful wiretapping in connection with its activities, which resulted in reels of videotape featuring loose talk from the Democratic operatives. The case could clarify the breadth of the First Amendment in protecting intrusive information-gathering activities — especially ones that have fallen out of favor with mainstream journalists.

“What was Project Veritas investigating, exactly?” asked Sandler.

In his pitch to jurors, Sandler argued that the plaintiffs in the case — Creamer, Democracy Partners and Strategic Consulting Group (SCG), a member of Democracy Partners — lost big money in contracts and other damages (more than $1 million, according to the original complaint) as a result of the sting. After Project Veritas’s report hit the internet, for example, AFSCME canceled a contract with SCG for phone banking and other services. That decision wasn’t driven entirely by the embarrassing snippets in the Project Veritas videos, suggested Sandler. A “substantial factor,” he said, was that the firm had allowed Project Veritas to infiltrate the organization and “compromise” its information.

That distinction is paramount to the case, which seeks damages stemming from Project Veritas’s actions that preceded publication of the videos — which is to say, the alleged misrepresentations and the allegedly unlawful wiretapping. Had Democracy Partners filed a defamation case, the legal analysis would have focused on the impact of the videos’ content, though, as this blog has explained previously, such a complaint would have had to clear a loftier evidentiary hurdle.

Project Veritas scoffs at the idea that its infiltration triggered a financial meltdown among Democratic operatives. “This case is about a news story,” said Calli in his opening statement, noting that after the videos surfaced, “Their clients wanted nothing to do with them [Creamer and Foval] — because of their words,” not because of the methods used to record them.

“No one put words in Scott Foval’s mouth,” said Calli. “Nobody forced Bob Creamer to meet over and over” with a Project Veritas staffer. Maybe so, though Project Veritas was far more than a passive actor in this series of events: For instance, “Roth” proposed a cockamamie voter-fraud scheme to Creamer at a dinner in August 2016.

In cross examination on Thursday afternoon, Calli asked Creamer why he hadn’t raised red flags internally about “Roth” after fielding such a proposal. “I believed it was well-intentioned,” said Creamer, who’d noted earlier that he considered “Roth’s” idea “silly” and unworkable. In another line of questioning, Calli sought to undermine Democracy Partners’ claim that the infiltration compromised the group’s confidential information. He pointed out that Creamer had blabbed to “Roth” about an upcoming operation in which a Democratic operative would dress as “Donald Ducks” to draw attention to the fact that Trump was ducking the release of his tax returns.

“Do you think Secretary Clinton, for whom you were working, would have been pleased that you were broadcasting” that plan to someone outside the organization? asked Calli. Creamer responded that he didn’t believe he was “broadcasting” anything, though he did concede, after another round of prodding by Calli, that there was “no doubt I should have been more discreet.”

Creamer’s testimony highlighted how head-spinning it can be to fall victim to a hidden-camera operation. He told the jury how he emerged from a meal at a downtown restaurant with a man who turned out to be a Project Veritas operative. The moment they left the premises, the man bolted, and a news crew from Sinclair Broadcast Group approached with questions about the statements captured on the Project Veritas recordings. (A Sinclair reporter later told Creamer that Project Veritas had provided an early look at raw footage from the sting, according to the complaint.)

It’s no wonder, then, that the exchanges between Calli and Creamer became testy, requiring multiple interventions by Friedman. The two at one point stalemated over the difference between “I don’t know” and “not to my knowledge.” After Creamer sustained a scolding from Friedman for disquisitional answers to Calli’s questions — the Democratic operative appeared to view his appearance as a judicial open-mic outing — he responded, “Sorry, your honor.” Calli rejoined, “No, you’re not.”

The judge also snapped at Calli, who became animated in his questioning of Creamer. “I don’t know what you’re doing with these gestures!” thundered Friedman. “Ask questions.”

Tension also arose in the corridor outside the courtroom. Before opening statements, Calli exchanged some tart remarks with New York Times reporter Adam Goldman, who along with his colleagues has broken several stories about Project Veritas. (Times staffers have also been the targets of Project Veritas stings, and Project Veritas sued the Times for defamation.)

“To what do we owe the honor?” Calli asked Goldman about his presence. The reporter answered that he wanted to check out the proceedings and mentioned the “profane emails” that he’d apparently received from Calli in recent months. Calli made a facetious reference to the “ethical” stories that Goldman has produced for the Times and called the oeuvre “gutless.”

“Paul, I don’t have anything to say to you,” said Goldman, who instructed Calli to go “back inside” and flicked a hand in the direction of the courtroom. “Who do you think you are?” responded Calli.

In his opening statement moments later, Calli hailed the undercover work of Project Veritas and contrasted it with other journalism outlets. As he made the comparison, Calli appeared to look straight at Goldman, who was in the back of the room taking notes.

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