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Opinion | Project Veritas offered bonuses for catching sting targets

Conducting an undercover investigation is a resource-intensive project, if the ongoing civil trial involving sting-video operation Project Veritas is any indication. It requires cutting-edge technology, extensive planning and dedicated employees.

And in this particular case, a till deep enough for some cash-bonus offers, according to an email that surfaced in the trial exhibits. “With the knowledge that ‘Content is King,’ I’ve decided to challenge the organization with a rallying focus,” wrote Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe in the email to his colleagues. “I’ve laid out below specific goals that when achieved will reward each and every full-time employee and several others intimately involved in the investigations.”

The email came amid crunchtime for Project Veritas, a month before the 2016 presidential election, whose contours it sought to shape. For months, it had taken careful steps to infiltrate Democracy Partners, an umbrella group of progressive political consulting firms. Project Veritas staffers used hidden cameras to record Democratic operatives boasting about their work. Among the targets were Robert Creamer, founder of Democracy Partners, and Scott Foval, a subcontractor of the firm. (Following the publication of the videos starting on Oct. 17, 2016, Creamer stepped away from his work advising the Hillary Clinton campaign, and Foval lost his job.)

Arguments in the trial Democracy Partners v. Project Veritas center on whether the infiltrators engaged in fraudulent misrepresentation and unlawful wiretapping, as alleged in the plaintiffs’ 2017 complaint. Paul Calli, who represents Project Veritas, argues that his clients were merely reporting a news story — and that it’s not their fault if the political operatives happened to make embarrassing statements while on tape. Democracy Partners, on the other hand, maintains that Project Veritas is a “political spying operation” that was out to help Donald Trump win the presidential race.

In his opening statement last week, Joseph Sandler, an attorney representing Democracy Partners, cited the cash-bonus offer as part of his argument that the organization was engaging in politics, not investigative journalism. The topic may well arise again this week, when O’Keefe is due to testify in the trial, which is unfolding in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman.

O’Keefe’s offer of cash bonuses came late in Project Veritas’s investigation of Democracy Partners, an operation whose timeline stretches back to spring 2016. Through the use of false identities, backstories and internet pages, Project Veritas had not only scooped up video of Creamer and Foval, but it had also planted an intern — Allison Maass, who presented herself as “Angela Brandt” — in the offices of Democracy Partners.

In an Oct. 3, 2016, email, O’Keefe specified what more the project needed. The top objective:

1) $1,000 bonus to every qualified participant IF we get the content we need on Democracy Partners:

Objective- Prior to October 14th, PV obtains Video and Audio OR Written collaboration where individuals directly connected to the Creamer/Foval element (or some derivative directly connected to same) state that they participate in some form of voter fraud. The words “Voter Fraud” don’t need to be mentioned, however the activities addressed must contain elements of Voter Fraud. Such as “we bus “x” in to the area from out of state” or “we offer money to homeless people to vote,” etc.

The memo also proposed a $1,000 bonus if either candidate mentioned the Democracy Partners investigation “OR we GET TV or Print coverage in Washington Post, New York Times, WSJ, Associated Press, National CBS, National NBC, National ABC, Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC.” A higher bonus of $2,500 would be disbursed “if Donald Trump mentions our videos in the Oct 19th debate, with or without attribution to PV.”

“I can’t wait to write dozens of bonus checks,” wrote O’Keefe in concluding the email.

In a February 2019 deposition, O’Keefe fielded a number of questions from Sandler on the email, including whether it was ethical “to offer a bonus to reporters, to a reporter, if they get a source or interviewee to state something specific that’s set out in advance.” O’Keefe responded that in this situation, “I believe it’s not unethical.” Further defending the practice, he said there’s nothing unethical in “providing an incentive for reporters to go get a story, which is essentially what our reporters did, and the story they got was huge.”

What’s more, O’Keefe claimed that “we can’t make people say things.” However: When Sandler noted that Project Veritas “never got Mr. Creamer to say” that he’d participated in voter fraud, O’Keefe replied, “We got him to say, perhaps, things that were even worse.”

Asked about these matters, Project Veritas responded with this statement: “As journalists, we understand your focus. As litigants, your specific focus is likely to be a subject of future testimony during Mr. Sandler’s examination and thus it would not be ethical or appropriate for us to comment at this time.”

The Project Veritas videos went viral and snared coverage from several mainstream outlets. O’Keefe told Sandler in the deposition that he didn’t recall if he’d actually paid out any bonuses for the first “objective” in the memo.

The Erik Wemple Blog has never heard of a bonus being offered to journalists at mainstream outlets in connection with particular reportorial outcomes. Any such arrangement would only boost critiques that establishment media adjusts the facts to its preconceived conclusions — and it would be a smoking-gun liability in a defamation suit brought against any media outlets reckless enough to deploy it as an incentive.

Mark Stencel, co-director of the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University, notes that tabloids pay for exclusives when hot stories arise, though such scenarios are different from “bounties for specific news outcomes,” he writes via email. And though there are examples of “checkbook journalism” in Britain, he’s “hard pressed to think of recent examples here.”

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