A federal judge has turned down a bid by the conservative undercover video producer Project Veritas to throw out a lawsuit filed by Democratic organizations and activists it had targeted during the 2016 presidential race.
The suit, filed last June and seeking more than $1 million in damages, alleges that Project Veritas and its founder, James O’Keefe, sent an intern using a false name to infiltrate the offices of the Democracy Partners consulting group about two months before the 2016 general election, in an effort to turn up dirt on the group’s operations countering some of Donald Trump’s rallies.
The intern, who called herself Angela Brandt, allegedly used a fake resume to get the internship and brought video and audio devices into the activists’ offices, where planning was underway for events aimed at “bracketing” Trump appearances.
In October 2016, Project Veritas released some of the videos and various documents online, contending that the events were actually aimed at inciting violence at Trump rallies. One Democratic activist involved in the work, Bob Creamer, resigned, while another, Scott Foval, was fired.
In her ruling Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Ellen Huvelle said the suit could proceed because Creamer, Democracy Partners and a related company called Strategic Consulting had plausibly asserted that Brandt — whose real name is said to be Allison Maass — trespassed by entering the groups’ offices after making false representations about her background and intentions.
Project Veritas’ lawyers argued that making unauthorized recordings did not undercut the fact that Maass was granted permission to be in the Democratic consultants’ offices, but the judge disagreed.
“The complaint alleges that Maass obtained her job — and thus the consent to enter Democracy Partners’ office — through misrepresentation,” wrote Huvelle, an appointee of President Bill Clinton. “Under these circumstances, plaintiffs’ ‘consent’ does not bar a claim for trespass.”
The conservative outlet’s attorneys also contended that any damages Creamer and the firms incurred were not the result of trespassing or trickery, but rather because of the underlying conduct that the sting exposed. Huvelle, however, said it wasn’t for her to decide what led to any damages Creamer or the firms incurred.
“It is well established that under District of Columbia law that ‘proximate cause is generally a factual issue to be resolved by the jury,’” Huvelle wrote.
Huvelle also left open the possibility that the defendants’ conduct violated the D.C. Wiretap Act, despite the fact that Maass appears to have been present during the recordings and typically D.C. law requires consent from only one person involved in a conversation to record it.
A spokesman for Project Veritas, Stephen Gordon, downplayed the judge’s ruling.
“Our belief is that this is a carefully crafted lawsuit which may have survived the motion to dismiss but will fail in the end,” Gordon said. “As the case proceeds, our attorneys will show the entire case is nothing more than an attempt to retaliate against Veritas for exposing Democracy Partners’ dirty political operation.”
A lawyer for Creamer and the Democratic firms, Joseph Sandler, welcomed the decision.
“We are pleased that the court has decided to let this important case to proceed and to allow our clients, who were really injured by the tactics and actions of Project Veritas, to pursue all of their claims,” Sandler said. “We look forward to proving that Project Veritas’ tactics were not merely dishonest and underhanded but violated the legal rights of the people affected — people who were doing nothing more than participating in the political process by legitimately helping candidates and causes in which they believed.”
The judge’s decision Thursday does not resolve the case or guarantee that it will go to trial, but it does open the door to the discovery process, during which both sides will be able to demand records and take testimony from individuals with insight into the events in dispute.
The ruling comes following considerable public tumult for Project Veritas in recent months, including The Washington Post’s high-profile exposure in November of a concerted effort by the group to persuade the newspaper to report on a fabricated rape allegation against Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican who lost his bid for a U.S. Senate seat last month. The blow-up also revealed weeks of undercover recording by Project Veritas apparently aimed at trying to get Post reporters to display political bias or say unflattering things about Trump.
Many of Project Veritas’ stings have led to litigation.
The organization did score a legal victory last month in Michigan, after a federal judge lifted a restraining order that had blocked the group from publishing videos and other information it gathered during an undercover infiltration of a local union chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.