NEW YORK, N.Y.—It’s rush hour on a Tuesday night, and James O’Keefe is racing through Grand Central Station carrying a black bag with a bulletproof vest inside. We had taken an UberXL into midtown Manhattan hours earlier for a special fitting session: O’Keefe, the undercover sting artist and conservative folk hero, needed a new jacket and shirts to fit over the body armor recommended by his security consultants. But the tailor’s evaluation—in a suite at the posh Lotte New York Palace, nearly 50 floors above street level with sweeping views of Central Park and the Empire State Building—lasted longer than expected. At this time of day, it could take hours to commute by car back to Mamaroneck, the sleepy New York suburb where O’Keefe’s mischievous nonprofit news outfit, Project Veritas, is headquartered. So, O’Keefe, a blur of nervous energy known for quick-twitch decisions, says we are taking the train.
It was nearly a decade ago that O’Keefe snuck onto America’s political landscape with his takedown of ACORN, the liberal community organizing behemoth that was defunded after he and Hannah Giles posed as a pimp and prostitute and secretly videotaped employees advising them how to shelter an off-the-books brothel. In the years since, nothing and everything has changed. O’Keefe, 33, is still a leper to the American left and a menace in the eyes of a media complex that frowns on his clandestine tactics. Yet gone is the young, emaciated, caffeine-and-adrenaline-fueled lone wolf whose maxed-out credit card financed the purchase of basic recording devices at Best Buy; in his place is a muscular man who has gained 60 pounds thanks to relentless diet and exercise, who built Project Veritas into a sprawling, high-tech operation, and who last year raised more than $7 million from an expectant donor base that sees O’Keefe as a guerrilla leader on the front lines of America’s culture war.
He has grabbed enough headlines to keep the checks coming. In January, for instance, Project Veritas released an undercover investigation of Twitter that roiled Silicon Valley. The substance was intriguing if not explosive—one former employee touted the practice of “shadow-banning” accounts based on ideological content, while a higher-ranking current official admitted that employees peruse the erotic images exchanged by users—and yet the mere fact that O’Keefe’s outfit had infiltrated the social media giant was cause for celebration on the right. Not every operation has been a hit, of course. Project Veritas was given a dose of its own medicine last fall when, after an ill-conceived and dreadfully executed attempt to sting the Washington Post went south, the newspaper flipped the script on O’Keefe and released its own tape of reporters unmasking his undercover operative.
It was the biggest flop of O’Keefe’s career. Denunciations rained down, including from comrades on the right. He took it hard. Friends describe the New Jersey native as maniacally driven and extremely sensitive to criticism, and several said the botched Post job was the lowest they’ve seen him—lower even than his 2010 incarceration following the failed attempt to discover telephonic misdeeds in the Louisiana office of then-Senator Mary Landrieu. The Post debacle also might have marked a point of no return in O’Keefe’s relationship with the media. A self-described journalist, O’Keefe looks in the mirror and sees a muckraker in the mold of Upton Sinclair or Nellie Bly, taking bold, unconventional steps to expose what no mainstream reporter ever could. O’Keefe spent years courting and craving recognition from those he considered peers. But despite his many objective successes—leading political reporter Dave Weigel to write in Slate that O’Keefe “had more of an impact on the 2012 election than any journalist”—the validation never came. Newsrooms decried his methods, questioned his ethics and summarily dismissed him as unreliable. Spurned, O’Keefe targeted the media itself. With Donald Trump’s ascent offering a unique opportunity to probe for bias in the press, his team spent much of 2017 investigating the pillars of the fourth estate: the New York Times, CNN and, fatefully, the Post.
Aboard a cramped commuter train heading north, O’Keefe bemoans what he believes is a double standard. Critics consider him a villain for “allegedly” making misleading edits to videos, he says, but why hasn’t Katie Couric been branded with a scarlet letter for the deceptive editing in her 2016 documentary about guns? People still read Rolling Stone, O’Keefe complains, even though it published a 9,000-word account of a campus rape that never occurred. People trust the Post, he notes, but it was forced to print a correction after its ACORN coverage initially stated that O’Keefe had targeted the group because it helped African-Americans and Latinos. “Yet because I selectively edit,” O’Keefe says, using air quotes, “I am the most despicable person on the planet.”
This argument would elicit more sympathy if the critics were wrong about O’Keefe’s editing—it has, at times, been misleading—and if O’Keefe weren’t nurturing a double standard of his own. As our stop nears, he shakes his head and shows me a CNN story on his iPhone. Reporters have contacted advertisers for Alex Jones, the demagogic and conspiracy-minded radio host who is best known for claiming that the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 were faking their deaths as part of a government hoax. “Speaking of accuracy,” I say, glancing up. “Haven’t you been on his show?” O’Keefe stiffens. “Yes,” he replies. “And I’m not going to say a negative word about Alex Jones.”
It’s a jarring inconsistency—arguing that all media actors should be assessed equally for their fidelity to truth, and then going silent on Jones. I press O’Keefe on this as we hike a few darkened blocks from the train depot to the Project Veritas headquarters, a low-profile structure on an industrial strip. Once we are seated inside his office, O’Keefe tries to explain. “The rules of engagement are different when you’re an insurgent,” he says. “We are insurgents who have an existential threat against us by the government, the system, which seeks to shut us down, and a complacent and corrupt media. In that world, we retain the right as Veritas to hold the side accountable that won’t hold itself accountable. And we consider Alex Jones an ally in that fight.”
It has come to this for O’Keefe. Marginalized by the media, despised by the left and banished from polite political company, the man who still longs for legitimacy as a journalist sees his foxhole so scarcely populated that he partners with known liars in the name of spreading truth.
Journalism has a dark side, and James O’Keefe has embraced it. But as proven by the recent sting operation by a British TV channel on the data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, undercover reporting has been, and still can be, a devastatingly effective tool for exposing wrongdoing. O’Keefe, the best-known sting artist this side of the Atlantic, has a chance to rehabilitate the practice—and himself. Perhaps he cannot change; perhaps he is destined to remain a fringe player whose bloodiest scalps—and there have been plenty—go unappreciated. But many hours of rare conversations with O’Keefe, and with his friends and associates, suggest that an evolution is being debated. That Project Veritas could steer away from partisan causes and adopt the identity of an apolitical watchdog. That maybe, just maybe, its leader is open to reinvention—and redemption.
“You have to understand,” said the voice on the phone. “Project Veritas is one-third CIA, one-third James Bond and one-third Mike Wallace.” O’Keefe had called to confirm his participation in this story, but he was struggling to reconcile his organization’s secretive approach with a reporter’s prying questions. Meeting the next morning, in his seventh-floor suite at the Gaylord National Resort outside Washington, I discovered the same hesitancy—and grandiosity. Giving a journalist access, O’Keefe said, goes “against my better judgment,” describing how he has “people with aliases” hiding in “safe houses” who are “literally putting their lives at risk.”
O’Keefe had come to attend the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a gathering of supporters and kindred spirits. A four-man entourage was assembled in his suite: Matthew Tyrmand, a Project Veritas board member and adviser to Poland’s nationalist government; Nick Evangelista and Marco Bruno, O’Keefe’s communications aides; and Ryan Lopez, the Project Veritas documentarian, who always keeps a video camera trained on O’Keefe in public, including during some of our conversations. (O’Keefe assured me at the outset, unsolicited, that he wouldn’t be “turning the tables” and stinging Politico.)
His all-millennial gang mirrored the youthful CPAC crowd that swarmed O’Keefe for selfies. On radio row, O’Keefe was greeted by “citizen journalist” Mike Cernovich, who reminded me that Project Veritas had infiltrated Antifa and exposed a plot to pump butyric acid into the vents at his “DeploraBall” party on Trump’s inauguration weekend. Cernovich, a self-made new media phenomenon who rejects the alt-right label he once embraced, is not the only polarizing character O’Keefe associates with. At a panel on internet censorship, O’Keefe lamented the absence of Jim Hoft, who runs the conspiracy-promoting Gateway Pundit blog, and Pamela Geller, an anti-Islam activist. Both were late scratches at CPAC due to conflict with the panel’s organizers, and both have a troubled history with the truth. Yet O’Keefe told me he considers them “good friends.”
Undercover reporting is a young person’s game, based on the demographic queued up at CPAC for O’Keefe to sign his new book, American Pravda, a Trump-inspired attack on the “fake news” of the mainstream media. Almost all of the college-aged admirers in line told O’Keefe they wanted to join Project Veritas; he directed them to his recruiting director, Spencer Meads, another 30-something standing nearby. One applicant, Sofia, told O’Keefe she is fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. She explained to me afterward that she hopes to use her trilingual skills to penetrate illegal immigrant communities that are “going around the law and finding ways to conceal themselves better.” Tyrmand overheard our interview. “You just weeded one out for us,” he told me afterward. “Talking to a reporter? In front of James?”
During my time with O’Keefe and his fresh-faced posse, I never once witnessed any of them challenge him. O’Keefe is known to be brutal on his employees; they are, by and large, a collection of young yes-men. A notable exception is Robert “Joe” Halderman. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he was imprisoned for trying to blackmail David Letterman, the result of an ugly love triangle. Halderman, 60, is also a recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award, an Emmy Award-nominated documentary film director and an Emmy Award-winning news producer best known as Dan Rather’s longtime wingman at CBS. Halderman quietly joined Project Veritas several years back. He holds the official title of executive producer and the unofficial title of the organization’s real newsman.
Sitting in his CPAC suite for our first lengthy interview, O’Keefe invited Halderman to join us. Over the ensuing weeks, I would detect significant tension within Project Veritas between those committed to right-wing activism and those seeking a pivot toward journalistic credibility. Halderman, who told me, “I’ve never voted for a Republican in my life,” is the leader of the latter faction. When I asked O’Keefe about the ideology driving Project Veritas, and whether the reputation of conservative hitman bothers him, he disputed the premise. Then Halderman chimed in. “That’s how we’re perceived,” he admitted. “Sometimes it looks quite clear that we are on one side of the spectrum, or with one tribe. … And yes, we do have concerns about it.”
This pattern repeated itself. Later, after O’Keefe defended “agenda-driven” journalism—recalling that Upton Sinclair, for example, was an avowed socialist—I asked him to describe his own agenda. “I would at least admit that I have an extreme view of the First Amendment. And, uh, that’s what I’m willing to say. I care deeply and strongly about the First Amendment and the rights of citizens to expose things,” O’Keefe said. He continued: “I would say probably education reform, I deeply care about—” Halderman began to interrupt, and this time O’Keefe flashed irritation. “Don’t speak for me, please,” he said sternly.
When the conversation turned to media, Halderman argued that news outlets have unfairly cast O’Keefe out of the fold, in part as a way to delegitimize what he discovers. “They go ad hominem—‘Oh, he’s a bad guy, he’s not reliable, he selectively edits, he’s been arrested’—because that then invalidates the story,” Halderman said. O’Keefe nodded. But his problems with the media are more personal, going back to the Louisiana incident. He remains bitter that “no journalist cared” when he was arrested and jailed—and given three years of federal probation—for the misdemeanor charge of entering a federal building under false pretenses, when in fact he used his real driver’s license and legally filmed conversations in Landrieu’s office. Reporters were content to dance on his grave, O’Keefe complained, rather than explore the connections between Landrieu’s family and the judge and the federal prosecutors in New Orleans, several of whom wound up later resigning in disgrace due to ethical lapses, including blogging negative remarks about O’Keefe and other defendants on a local news website.
The paradox for Project Veritas is that for O’Keefe’s stories to stick, he needs help from the very newsrooms he hates—and, in some cases, has investigated. When I made this point, O’Keefe again bristled at the premise. And again, Halderman interjected. “We don’t have the power, the platform, to get our stories out unless other media covers them,” he acknowledged. With his boss sitting silently, Halderman said they hunger for “validation” from media and described his own “vision” for Project Veritas. “We want to be respected for doing real journalism. That’s what we want.”
O’Keefe appeared vexed by these remarks, and a short while later asked Halderman to wait in the hallway while we finished the interview. But by then the predicament was plainly obvious: The biggest impediment to the evolution of Project Veritas is its founder.
I would come to realize, however, that O’Keefe’s reluctance to change might have less to do with a commitment to partisan warfare than it does a mutually escalating blood feud with the media, one that has left him feeling isolated, ostracized and unwilling to give an inch. When I asked why he thinks mainstream journalists aren’t sympathetic to him, the normally mild-mannered O’Keefe turned heads in the room. “Because,” he growled, “they fucking hate me.”
It’s no coincidence that the blockbuster stories of the past three presidential races—Trump boasting about groping women; Mitt Romney dismissing 47 percent of the electorate; Barack Obama observing that “bitter” voters cling to God and guns—were all the result of stealth recordings. There’s an unmistakable power to hearing what someone thinks when they believe they’re out of public earshot.
Reactions to these bombshells, though, tend to fall along tribal lines. The liberals who decry O’Keefe’s techniques shed few tears when Trump and Romney were the victims of edited, secretly recorded (and possibly illegal) tapes. Brooke Kroeger, a professor at New York University’s graduate school of journalism and a supporter of undercover journalism, recalls how O’Keefe’s 2011 sting of National Public Radio—which resulted in the ouster of its CEO and another top official—came on the heels of a similar investigation, this one conducted by the Humane Society into Smithfield Foods. “Nobody was upset about that sting. There was no outcry against the method. And yet there was a huge outcry over O’Keefe,” Kroeger tells me. “People respond from where they stand. They love NPR, they’re mad. They love animals, they’re happy.”
Her observation is true enough, even if the NPR sting isn’t an ideal example of selective outrage. O’Keefe insists his team “does not deceptively edit, period” and defies skeptics to prove him wrong. And there is evidence to suggest Project Veritas has become more disciplined on this front. But the NPR video continues to haunt O’Keefe. The final cut captured harsh comments about Tea Partiers made by an NPR executive, Ronald Schiller, when in fact the full recording made clear that some of Schiller’s negative comments were relaying the sentiments of others rather than speaking for himself. Once discovered, this opened O’Keefe to fierce criticism, particularly from former Fox News host Glenn Beck, an early backer of O’Keefe who soured on him after the NPR episode.
Mainstream outlets frown on O’Keefe’s methods for more fundamental reasons. For one thing, he acts as both journalist and advocate—producing news packages with the instincts and incentives of an opposition-research firm. Furthermore, the rules of the undercover reporting game have become canonical in recent decades; chief among them, per the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.” Unwritten but perhaps even more rigorously observed is the rule that journalists, undercover or not, cannot lie while doing their reporting. “Newspapers have taken very seriously, when they’ve done this work, the question of truth-telling—even if telling the truth required some acrobatics,” says Kroeger, the author of Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception. This is what separates ABC’s infamous sting of Food Lion, which yielded multimillion-dollar lawsuits, from the Washington Post’s investigation of conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Both were undercover jobs. The key distinction: ABC reporters submitted fraudulent applications to land the Food Lion jobs, while the Post reporters simply evaded detection, never outright lying to hospital officials or assuming fake identities.
Still, there is a rich history of undercover journalists who served their audiences—and did considerable good—by observing no such guidelines. Bly, working for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, checked herself into an insane asylum to expose mistreatment, leading to prosecutions and major reforms. Sinclair’s deceptive infiltration of a meat-packing plant in The Jungle prompted sweeping new federal laws. William Gaines won a Pulitzer Prize for the Chicago Tribune in 1976 after posing as a janitor at two local hospitals and reporting on appalling conditions.
Everything changed in 1978, when the Chicago Sun-Times—having purchased a tavern and staffed it with reporters to document pervasive corruption among city officials—published a 25-part series that was chosen for a Pulitzer Prize. That is, until legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee intervened, convincing the judges that deception in the reporting process undermined the credibility of the reporting itself. “That was a turning point,” says O’Keefe, an obsessive student of the history of undercover journalism, who had the Project Veritas bathrooms wallpapered in news clippings featuring legendary stings. “I think after Watergate things changed. I think journalists took themselves way too seriously. Journalism became more decorous, less fun, and journalists pursued power instead of truth.”
There is a simpler explanation, though, for the decline of undercover reporting: funding and lawsuits. Embedding journalists for lengthy periods is a prohibitive expense, especially for regional and local newspapers that pioneered the practice. And for bigger, national news organizations, the threat of crippling litigation is a constant deterrent. There is a reason “Nightline” and “60 Minutes” now steer clear of what was once a journalistic staple.
O’Keefe wants credibility. He also wants to restore a bygone era when the results of media stings were more important than the rules governing them. All of this may be attainable. But it will require O’Keefe to target his own tribe. And that, I learned, makes him deeply uncomfortable.
James Edward O’Keefe III did not inherit the paternal gene for craftsmanship. His father, an engineer who felt uneasy in corporate America, bounced between jobs in the Hudson Valley and ultimately paid the bills by doing what he loved: buying old, dilapidated homes, restoring them and renting them out. James Jr. enlisted his own father’s help with these projects, and, once he was old enough to carry a paint brush, that of his only son.
Although he looks back on valuable life lessons imparted by the work, O’Keefe says he hated it. He loved the outdoors and eventually became an Eagle Scout. But he was a scrawny type, enchanted by books and poetry and theater; he would drift away while helping his father and grandfather, daydreaming of dancing and singing on Broadway. He followed those passions into young adulthood, starring in musicals at Westwood High School in suburban New Jersey. (O’Keefe is an accomplished dancer; one friend recalled him doing a Michael Jackson routine at a conservative gala to impress young women.) Not banking on his acting skills, O’Keefe enrolled at Rutgers University as a philosophy major. He brought few partisan convictions to campus; the O’Keefe household was barely political. When he first became eligible to vote in a presidential election in 2004, as a college sophomore, he stayed home.
At Rutgers, however, O’Keefe was experiencing a cultural awakening. A member of the men’s glee club, and taking courses in history and political science, he felt overwhelmed by the ubiquitous liberal bias among his professors. Some were proud Marxists; a few, he says, were self-described “Stalinists.” A contrarian by nature, O’Keefe applied for a biweekly column in the student newspaper, the Daily Targum, which he called “Feathers of Steel.” The commentary was benign at first but grew more confrontational the more unwelcome he felt in the newsroom and in his lecture halls. At the end of his first semester at college, O’Keefe published a column titled “The Conservative Manifesto,” in which he wrote that “Rutgers promoted an intellectual imbalance” and declared, “I encourage gratuitous statements praising extremist left-wing tyrants, as long as there are statements praising extremist right-wing tyrants as well.”
O’Keefe says his column was not renewed the next semester. Dejected, he found refuge in journalism, sitting alone for hours each day in a cafeteria and reading three newspapers—the New York Times, USA Today and Newark Star-Ledger—front to back. More consequentially, he discovered Rules for Radicals, the 1971 book by liberal activist Saul Alinsky, which is required reading for new hires at Project Veritas. O’Keefe, in true Alinsky fashion, started his own alternative newspaper, the Centurion. It almost didn’t get off the ground: The newspaper needed a faculty adviser to receive school funds, and nobody would sponsor O’Keefe. Finally, a history professor and free-speech absolutist, James Livingston, agreed—on the condition he be given a column. “I’m a Marxist, a socialist, a feminist, and a pragmatic postmodernist,” Livingston wrote in the November 2004 debut edition.
Thematically, the newspaper focused less on national political disputes and more on issues of intellectual prejudice on campus. An editorial from O’Keefe said the Centurion would not endorse George W. Bush or John Kerry for president; it also decried Bush’s attempt to pass a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, saying the policy bordered on “radicalism.” The second issue, in December 2004, carried a smart front-page story: 104 Rutgers professors had donated a combined $52,000 to Kerry, while just one professor had given $500 to Bush. “Maybe in an alternative world, where Republicans outnumbered Democrats 104 to 1,” O’Keefe tells me, “I would have been doing the inverse.”
“The professoriate is profoundly liberal, and Jimmy’s right in that sense. He was exposed to one way of thinking, all of it more or less liberal,” Livingston tells me. He recalls his first meeting with O’Keefe and one of the newspaper’s co-founders, who was more ideological and did most of the talking, while O’Keefe, a “jumpy, nervous kid,” kept quiet. When he did speak, Livingston says, it was all about combating the lack of political diversity at Rutgers. “He thought conservative voices on campus couldn’t be heard, and I agreed with him.” The newspaper was cheeky—O’Keefe, as editor-in-chief, embossed a hammer and sickle in the background of Livingston’s column—if not exceedingly stimulating. The copies I reviewed echoed familiar points about college groupthink and featured funny stunts tweaking liberals on campus, but made few compelling arguments for conservatism itself.
Running the newspaper brought O’Keefe under the tutelage of Ben Wetmore, then director of student publications for the Leadership Institute, an organization based in the D.C. area that trains young conservative activists and has alumni scattered throughout the Republican Party. Wetmore was deeply impressed with O’Keefe, who, while running the Centurion, was also formulating inventive media methods for exposing liberal bias and political correctness. “Video transfixes in a way that words don’t,” O’Keefe says of his drift from print journalism.
His junior year, O’Keefe broke through. Granted a meeting with a Rutgers official, and with video rolling, he complained that Lucky Charms—served in campus dining halls—promulgated an offensive stereotype of Irish-Americans as short, green-clad hucksters. Wetmore, who had devised the operation with O’Keefe, watched in disbelief as his pupil kept a straight face. “His background in theater is a big part of his story,” Wetmore says. “He was fearless.”
The stunt earned O’Keefe tens of thousands of YouTube hits, a real achievement for a penniless collegian back in 2005. It also foreshadowed his penchant for exaggeration. O’Keefe has always claimed in telling the story that Rutgers pulled Lucky Charms from its cafeterias, but school officials, who became aware that it was a prank, say that never happened. (More recently, O’Keefe has boasted that “the COO of Twitter resigned” as a result of Project Veritas’ sting, but there is zero evidence of correlation. Anthony Noto left Twitter to become CEO of the loan company SoFi.)
Wetmore helped O’Keefe land a job after graduation at the Leadership Institute. There, he met a number of rising right-wing operatives. Several I spoke with remember O’Keefe as an enigma—someone well-read and intellectually adroit, yet socially oblivious and curiously incapable of rudimentary tasks. (Two friends recalled that O’Keefe couldn’t do his own laundry.) Steve Stockman, the future Texas congressman who was then director of the Leadership Institute’s campus programming, gave O’Keefe the nickname “idiot savant,” much to the new employee’s chagrin.
The job didn’t last long. During one of many recruiting visits to colleges nationwide, O’Keefe met a UCLA anti-abortion activist named Lila Rose. They forged a fast alliance, and after a few smaller stings on campus, they turned to the biggest target imaginable: Planned Parenthood. Posing as a 23-year-old boyfriend to a 15-year-old Rose, O’Keefe captured the organization’s employees turning a blind eye to a relationship they should have reported as statutory rape. He posted the videos to YouTube and hell was unleashed—first from Planned Parenthood, which sent a cease-and-desist letter, and then from the Leadership Institute, which fired O’Keefe for his provocative freelancing.
Feeling betrayed, he moved cross-country for law school in California. That didn’t last, either. O’Keefe was adrift. He produced some videos and brainstormed ideas with Wetmore, but his life was stuck in neutral. And then, in late 2008, he logged onto Facebook and spotted Hannah Giles.
The biggest sting of O’Keefe’s career—the one that put him on the map—wasn’t his idea.
A journalism major at Florida International University, Giles had moved to Washington in 2009 for a summer internship. Jogging one morning in Southeast D.C., she found herself in a sketchy neighborhood witnessing a disturbing scene—schoolchildren waiting for the bus, surrounded by prostitution and drug dealing. On that same block, she spotted an ACORN office, recognizing the name from news stories in 2008 about a million-dollar embezzlement scandal that was covered up. (ACORN had also long been mired in controversies surrounding voter-registration fraud.) Giles began scheming. She would dress like a prostitute, enter the offices and ask for housing to run a brothel. When she told friends of the idea, they worried about her inexperience and the risk of getting caught. Then one of them asked: Had she heard of James O’Keefe?
Indeed, she had. A year earlier, Giles says, O’Keefe had sent her a random Facebook message: “You’re pretty cute. Too bad you live in Florida.” Checking his page, she learned about his Planned Parenthood videos and how some had been taken down from YouTube. She did not reciprocate the romantic entreaty, but the two chatted and kept in touch. Acting on her friend’s advice, Giles reached out to O’Keefe in June 2009 and pitched the ACORN idea. He pounced. When he arrived in Washington a month later to pick her up and commence the operation, Giles came outside to meet O’Keefe but found him frazzled, unable to extract his credit card from a parking meter. “He’s definitely unique. I’ve not met many people like him,” Giles laughs.
Over the next two months, O’Keefe and Giles visited offices in eight cities. The script was the same: The pimp and prostitute would ask for housing to run a brothel, then push the line of questioning into the absurd and blatantly illegal, then wait for ACORN officials to take the bait. Plenty of them did. O’Keefe’s most effective gambit: claiming that he would be housing underage El Salvadoran girls. In Baltimore, an employee said he could claim them as dependents—and get a child tax credit. In San Bernardino, California, an employee said they could categorize the brothel as a “group home” to stay off law enforcement’s radar. In other offices, Giles was instructed on how to falsify tax forms.
The impact was immediate. Teaming with conservative media provocateur Andrew Breitbart, O’Keefe produced and released the videos in staggered fashion, generating waves of indignation on the right and paralysis on the left. Obama, a longtime ally of the organization, called for its investigation. Congressional hearings were scheduled. Lawsuits were filed. Jon Stewart lampooned ACORN on “The Daily Show” in a memorable package dubbed “The Audacity of Hos.” Within a year, ACORN was bankrupt and out of business, having been defunded by both Democrat-controlled chambers of Congress.
Yet it wasn’t a clean kill. The ACORN sting established O’Keefe as a force to be reckoned with, but also introduced questions about his credibility. In producing a slick opening for the package, O’Keefe dressed flamboyantly, donning a hat and chinchilla fur (borrowed from his grandmother) while accompanying the scantily clad Giles. But while she had worn that same outfit into the offices, O’Keefe had dressed professionally in a suit and tie. Although he presented himself as her pimp to ACORN employees, O’Keefe had misled viewers, sowing the first seeds of doubt. There also was the question of editing. “The sequence of some conversations was changed. Some workers seemed concerned for Giles, one advising her to get legal help. In two cities, ACORN workers called the police,” wrote Clark Hoyt, then the public editor of the New York Times, who reviewed the raw footage. “But,” he concluded, “the most damning words match the transcripts and the audio, and do not seem out of context.” Finally, there was legal fallout. Both O’Keefe and Giles were slapped with various lawsuits, and he settled for $100,000 with a San Diego employee who was fired for his remarks on camera even though he had called the police after the duo left his office.
None of this kept O’Keefe from becoming an overnight sensation on the right. Members of Congress came calling. Awards were presented from activist groups. Fox News paid homage. O’Keefe, a lifelong introvert, says he was uncomfortable with the attention. Giles remembers it differently. “He ate it up,” she tells me. “I actually became pretty repulsed and disgusted by the conservative movement. I saw a lot of hypocrisy. They thought because I exposed ACORN that I must be some right-wing fan girl. … But I dropped off. I stopped going. James couldn’t stop.”
Emboldened by his sudden celebrity and addicted to the rush, O’Keefe began plotting bigger and riskier investigations. But his allies began to worry. Andrew Breitbart repeatedly warned O’Keefe about needing to mature and improve his judgment, according to multiple people who recall their conversations. The advice didn’t get through. In January 2010, still basking in the afterglow of ACORN’s demise, O’Keefe and three accomplices visited Wetmore in Louisiana. One of them, Joe Basel, says they were meant to execute a bigger operation—one that he claims would have kept the Affordable Care Act from passing in Congress. Instead, he recalls, O’Keefe planned “a headline-induced, spur-of-the-moment prank.” He wanted to prove that Senator Landrieu’s office, which her Tea Party constituents were complaining they couldn’t reach, was blocking their calls. One guy drove; two dressed as telephone repairmen; O’Keefe posed as a plainclothes visitor. All of them used their real IDs, and none carried any tools to touch the phone lines. But Landrieu’s staffers didn’t bite, and O’Keefe’s crew was promptly busted. O’Keefe, on his lawyer’s advice, pleaded guilty to the eventual charge, entering a federal building under false pretenses—a decision he regrets to this day, with “convicted criminal” a frequent honorific.
What O’Keefe does not regret is the sting itself. He says the entire episode—being jailed; having a judge discard video footage that could have exonerated them; and the three years’ probation—enlightened him to the “corrupt regime” we live under. He also says the probation, which confined him to New Jersey, forced him to grow the operation and hone his managerial skills. What’s unclear is whether he learned any lessons about discernment. Basel, who shared a jail cell with O’Keefe, says you can draw a straight line from that 2010 incident to the failed Washington Post sting nearly eight years later. “His risk analysis is off,” Basel says. “I stopped working with him after Louisiana.”
The most hated man in media wants a veggie burger. We are in Mamaroneck, at the Green Life restaurant, a short stroll from the Project Veritas base. Some customers glance over, seeming to recognize O’Keefe. Fame has changed his lifestyle. At least once a day, he tells me, a stranger will approach him. O’Keefe no longer gives his last name on first dates, he says, fearful that a quick Google search could nix romantic prospects. “One time a woman thought I didn’t give her my last name because I was married,” he tells me over lunch. “One time recently, I didn’t identify my last name, and somebody walks up to me on the date and says, ‘Are you James O’Keefe?’” He chuckles. “She thought that I had paid the person to do that.”
And then there are the professional challenges. You don’t get to be America’s most famous stinger without foes trying to sting you back. It happened once before: O’Keefe is certain that Nadia Naffe, a onetime recruit who accused him of holding her against her will at the original Project Veritas headquarters, was a mole. (A judge threw out her complaint; O’Keefe says he “went home and cried” as the internet exploded with false rumors of rape.) Infiltration remains a constant threat. Last year, O’Keefe says, they interviewed hundreds of applicants and narrowed the pool to 50, only to sniff out several rats. One young woman told O’Keefe, a known maritime enthusiast, that she had been sailing her whole life—then could not answer his questions about the mechanics of a sailboat. “It’s a very hard thing to hire for,” he sighs.
Once final cuts are made, and new recruits chosen, they are taken to an “off-site” location. There they spend several weeks in orientation, studying the history of undercover journalism, learning “the Veritas magic” and training for assignments. Some wash out during the process. Others get cold feet once in the field. More than a few prove to be ineffective and get their covers blown. This was the case in Michigan last year. A Project Veritas operative, posing as an aspiring second-grade teacher, secured an internship with the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. The union soon found out and fired her—and then successfully petitioned for a restraining order to prevent O’Keefe from airing footage obtained inside.
Project Veritas lawyers are confident they’ll win the AFT dispute and eventually release the recordings, but O’Keefe remains miffed at how his operative was outed. “We couldn’t trace it,” he says. “She may have had her Gmail tab open, we think, and they may have glanced at the computer screen. … Sometimes they can be too forthcoming or too blunt or too inquisitive so as to arouse suspicion.” He also wonders if a Michigan-based donor talked too much. “We know it wasn’t anyone internally,” he tells me. “We have no leaks.”
That may be true. But leaks couldn’t be more damaging than O’Keefe’s own ham-fisted handling of certain operations in recent years. There was the time he planned to lure a CNN reporter, who was interviewing him for a documentary about conservatives, onto a boat filled with hidden cameras and sex toys. (The interviewer was tipped off by Project Veritas’ executive director, who then resigned. “Was it the best idea in the world?” O’Keefe muses. “I don’t know.”) And then there was the time he planned, and promised to donors, a groundbreaking sting of George Soros, the liberal megadonor. O’Keefe kicked off the operation with a phone call to the Open Society Foundations, posing as a European donor wanting to partner with Soros and his group. The only problem: O’Keefe failed to hang up the phone after leaving a voicemail, allowing Soros’ employees to overhear the scheming and conclude rather easily who was behind it.
“I remember being impressed at first, in the sense that it was a creative way to break news about liberals and get to the facts. He was a practitioner of the dark arts, and ‘game recognize game’ on that front,” says Tim Miller, a veteran GOP strategist who co-founded the opposition-research firm America Rising. “But I turned on him pretty quickly. … His M.O. is to shoot for these home-run, news-cycle-grabbing scandals, but he whiffs like nine times out of 10.”
Most infamously, there was the Washington Post debacle. O’Keefe’s undercover reporter, Jaime Phillips, used her real name—encouraged for legal, if not ethical, reasons—when meeting a Post reporter and telling a fabricated story about how Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore had slept with her as a teenager and forced her to have an abortion. A quick internet search turned up a GoFundMe page under her name in which she described moving to New York to “work in the conservative media movement to combat the lies and deceit of the liberal MSM.” The Post quickly unraveled the plot, and in humiliating fashion published multiple stories exposing the failed operation. The blowback, including from the right, was unprecedented. “Once again, O’Keefe is grandstanding & hurting the conservative movement,” tweeted Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Media Research Center. “I’m glad the Post outed him.”
What O’Keefe says bothered him most was the notion that he aimed to plant a fake story. Phillips, he insists, purposely told her yarn off the record to prevent the Post from publishing it. He says the goal was simply to gain access to Post reporters in hopes of catching them making embarrassing remarks about the president, the Russia investigation and bias at the newspaper. “We had actually flirted with the idea of posing as a Trump victim,” O’Keefe tells me. “It wasn’t about Moore. It wasn’t about Trump. The whole point was, how do you get a meeting with the Washington Post?”
Still, two things are notable: First, that O’Keefe, who holds such a low opinion of the media, relied on the Post’s being sufficiently ethical so as to not publish Phillips’ blockbuster account, even anonymously. Second, that O’Keefe, rather than showing remorse, chose defiance. “BREAKING: Undercover Video Exposes Washington Post’s Hidden Agenda,” screamed a Project Veritas website headline just hours after the Post article published. It was another dud—the “hidden agenda” amounted to one Post employee explaining the elementary distinction between news and editorials, and another acknowledging that stories about Trump attract lots of readers. A day later, O’Keefe published another Post video, this one “exposing” national security reporter Adam Entous. The substance: Entous had told a Project Veritas operative that there was “no evidence” thus far to suggest Trump colluded with Russia. Entous, and the Postby extension, could not have come off looking any better, any fairer, any more fact-oriented.
The Post fiasco, and his other flops, have overshadowed O’Keefe’s many wins over the years. In 2010, his team snuck into a teachers’ union event in his native New Jersey and captured educators discussing the impossibility of firing a tenured teacher, even one who had allegedly used the “N-word” toward a student. (The videos were widely aired locally and escalated a feud between the union and Governor Chris Christie.) In 2012, O’Keefe sent operatives into polling places in New Hampshire who requested—and were offered—the ballots of dead people. (New Hampshire changed its voting laws as a result of the sting.) He pulled a similar stunt in Washington, where an undercover reporter was offered Eric Holder’s ballot in the then-attorney general’s precinct. (It was a public relations nightmare for Holder, an opponent of voter ID laws.) O’Keefe caught Patrick Moran, the campaign field director for his father, then-Virginia Congressman Jim Moran, discussing a plot to cast illegal ballots. (Law enforcement investigated but brought no charges.) He crossed the Rio Grande in both directions dressed like Osama bin Laden and went unmolested. (Arizona Senator John McCain used the video to grill a Department of Homeland Security official about border security during a congressional hearing.) Perhaps most surprising, he penetrated the outer orbit of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016. Project Veritas captured two of her allies—Scott Foval of Americans United for Change, and Robert Creamer, co-founder of Democracy Partners, a consultant to the Democratic National Committee, and husband of Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky—talking about everything from aiding voter fraud to stirring up violence at Trump rallies. The videos were cited by Trump in the final presidential debate, which O’Keefe attended as his guest; Foval was fired, Creamer was exiled from the DNC, and even the New York Times gave the story prominent billing in print.
The interior of Project Veritas, dressed in cherry-stained pine with black paint coating industrial-style ceilings, was inspired by O’Keefe’s only sibling, a younger sister who he says works as an architect and designer in Michigan. The foyer pays homage to his humble beginnings. Framed and mounted on the wall, next to the Project Veritas insignia, is the original pimp costume. “We walked in and out of ACORN in 15 minutes,” he says. “We don’t do that anymore.” Indeed, Project Veritas is scaling its operations to an uncharted degree. The group raised more money and hired more operatives last year than ever, and O’Keefe, leading the largest undercover reporting outfit on Earth, boasts that he has people inside some of America’s most influential organizations—media, technology and government entities among them. His team is placing an emphasis this year on the midterm elections, and O’Keefe says numerous undercover operatives are tasked with penetrating campaigns.
When I ask Halderman, he says they won’t exclusively be targeting Democrats. This is hard to believe. 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. The year before Ellis was caught on video discussing setting up an illegal political action committee, Project Veritas received $50,000 from Eric O’Keefe. He is no relation to James, but he is the director of the Wisconsin Club for Growth—a longtime nemesis of Ellis. It wasn’t hard for Madison insiders to put two and two together, even though O’Keefe insists, “There’s no for-sale sign on my door.”
He explains that his group is constantly soliciting tips about people or groups that deserve scrutiny. But this only covers whom O’Keefe is investigating; the more revealing questions pertain to whom he is not—and why. Project Veritas has received the bulk of its funding from a handful of major donors, including hedge fund tycoon Robert Mercer, as well as members of the network established by billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch. There are also smaller individual contributors to O’Keefe’s group, people who give $10 or $25 to support the mission. Somewhere in the middle is Trump, who has donated $20,000 to Project Veritas and met with O’Keefe on multiple occasions before winning the White House. What unites them all is an expectation that O’Keefe will be going after the left, not the right.
This puts Project Veritas in a tenuous position. Either O’Keefe continues as a partisan mercenary, eliminating any prospect of reinventing himself as an equal-opportunity watchdog; or he begins exposing corruption and wrongdoing on the right, potentially alienating the people who pay his bills. “Many donors have said that they view Project Veritas as the SEAL Team of the good government and conservative movement,” Tyrmand, the board member, tells me. “The organization does things that most organizations on our side of the debate would never engage.”
When I ask about the risk of losing his donors, O’Keefe shrugs. “I’m completely unconcerned.” Then why not go after the right? Trump’s Washington—a swamp not yet drained—is certainly a target-rich environment. “I’m not interested in taking down a president,” he tells me. “I’m interested in exposing things nobody else is exposing.” But by sparing one side, isn’t O’Keefe engaging in exactly the sort of incestuous favoritism he accuses the mainstream media of? “It takes time,” he replies. “I’m a relatively young person, and we’re just getting started.”
By way of explanation, O’Keefe adds: “There’s a thousand people investigating the NRA. I don’t think we need a thousand and one.” But what would happen if he did? “Oh, if I’d gotten the NRA president to resign, I’d have a Pulitzer Prize,” he laughs. “I’d probably have a Nobel Prize.” Isn’t there a part of him that wants to test that theory? “I like a good story,” he tells me. “One of these days, if the story is good enough, we’ll publish it. Shoot to kill.”
Back in the war room at Project Veritas, a technology and surveillance bunker straight out of a spy flick, Halderman says that going mainstream is long overdue. “We want to do more projects that are not political,” he says. “We think there’s a lot out there that needs to be exposed that isn’t left or right, or conservative or liberal, it’s just wrong.” It’s worth pointing out, though, that Halderman hails from conventional media, an industry in which the revenue comes from advertisers and subscribers. Project Veritas is different. Just before our conversation, he and O’Keefe are on a conference call with one of their many lawyers; they are presently ensnared in countless lawsuits, and to make things more interesting, the attorneys general of California and New York are threatening to request the identities of their undercover operatives. (O’Keefe says he is prepared to go to prison to protect them.) With astronomical legal fees, dozens of full-time employees on payroll and scores of undercover reporters running pricey operations as independent contractors, biting a donor’s hand is easier said than done.
Whether it’s the specter of paralyzing litigation, severed financial relationships or punishing government intervention, the reality of O’Keefe’s existence is that Project Veritas is always going to be vulnerable to a sudden collapse—and he knows it. “At any given point in time, this is a sandcastle,” he says, holding his hand upright before flicking it downward. “It could just fall.”
Somewhere on the Garden State Parkway, pushing southbound in a white Chevrolet Tahoe, O’Keefe offers evidence of his group’s maturation. Project Veritas recently drafted a code of ethics, and when I raise the question of “psychological rape”—a phrase from a Gizmodo article, attributed to people unknowingly videotaped during his stings—O’Keefe opens his iPhone to show me the document. Item No. 9 reads: “We treat our sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.” Right then, as I ask whether he ever feels grimy about exploiting low-level people, one of his deputies interrupts: The Channel 4 videos from Britain, a sting of Cambridge Analytica, has gone live. “Let’s watch these undercover investigators, making people feel icky, violating them with ‘psychological rape,’” O’Keefe says with a smirk.
The videos are damning. Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix, suggests using blackmail and fake scandals to damage political rivals. O’Keefe and his team watch carefully. They have two conclusions when the video ends. First, because of the resequenced shots and multiple recording angles, “everyone would accuse us of selective editing,” says Lopez, the cameraman. Second, Nix’s most incriminating line—“It sounds a dreadful thing to say, but these are things that don’t necessarily need to be true, as long as they’re believed”—is one thing O’Keefe swears he would never do. “The most important ethical rule at Project Veritas is to always tell the truth to the consumer of news,” he says. “That is a line that I would never, have never and will never cross.”
The rest of the Project Veritas code is fairly boilerplate, similar to what could be found in any newsroom. With one exception: There is no mention of avoiding bias or partisan preference. The guidelines emphasize fairness and truth-telling but never objectivity. The simplest explanation is probably the most accurate. There is a war going on, and James O’Keefe has no interest in neutrality. He might once have been an idealist more interested in pursuing justice and parity than partisan victories. But with every fresh attack on his intentions and his integrity—and every fawning salute from conservatives who view him as indispensable to their cause—O’Keefe has been driven deeper into his foxhole. At this point, there might be no way out.
“There are a lot of people who are really encouraged by what he does, and they don’t have an advocate at ABC or CBS or PBS. But they have an advocate in James,” says Wetmore, his friend and former boss. “The passion people have for him is rooted in that love. If he just tried to be a knockoff of ‘60 Minutes,’ I don’t think that would ever work out.”
Giles disagrees. “You’ve got to be intellectually honest and not get stuck in a box. And James, I think he’s made a good business off of all the stories he’s done, but if he can find a way to expand and branch out of that box, I think he would start being respected a little bit more,” she tells me. But Giles isn’t sure O’Keefe has the capacity for such a change. “Sometimes,” she says, “companies and organizations outgrow their founders.”
We arrive at the University of Delaware’s campus at dusk. O’Keefe is speaking here at an event organized by the Leadership Institute, his former employer. There are no explicit signals of any evolution; just an hourlong recital of his own greatest hits and a fatwa against the “broken” and “corrupt” Fourth Estate. The audience of a dozen students, outgunned conservatives living behind enemy lines, savors every last word. When he finishes, O’Keefe invites them to join him. But he issues a warning. “If you want to pursue truth and fight for something good,” O’Keefe says, “you’re going to be hated.”