WASHINGTON — A jury in a federal civil case on Thursday found that Project Veritas, a conservative group known for its deceptive tactics, had violated wiretapping laws and fraudulently misrepresented itself as part of a lengthy sting operation against Democratic political consultants.
The jury awarded the consulting firm, Democracy Partners, $120,000. The decision amounted to a sharp rebuke of the practices that Project Veritas and its founder, James O’Keefe, have relied on. During the trial, lawyers for Project Veritas portrayed the operation as news gathering and its employees as journalists following the facts.
“Hopefully, the decision today will help to discourage Mr. O’Keefe and others from conducting these kind of political spy operations and publishing selectively edited, misleading videos in the future,” Robert Creamer, a co-founder of Democracy Partners, said in a statement after the jury had reached a verdict.
Project Veritas said it would appeal the decision.
In 2016, according to testimony and documents introduced at the trial, Project Veritas carried out a plan to infiltrate Democracy Partners, which worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign through the Democratic National Committee.
As part of the ruse, a Project Veritas operative posing as a wealthy donor named Charles Roth mentioned to Mr. Creamer that he wanted to make a $20,000 donation to a progressive group that was also a client of Mr. Creamer.
Later, the man posing as Mr. Roth told Mr. Creamer that his niece was interested in continuing her work in Democratic circles. After the money was wired from an offshore account in Belize to the group, Mr. Creamer spoke with the woman playing the role of Mr. Roth’s niece and offered her an unpaid internship at Democracy Partners.
The niece used a fake name and email account along with a bogus résumé. In his book, “American Pravda,” Mr. O’Keefe wrote that the “donation certainly greased the wheels.”
The operative, whose real name is Allison Maass, secretly taped conversations and took documents while working at Democracy Partners. She then supplied the information to her superiors at Project Veritas, which edited the videos and made them public.
The videos suggested that Mr. Creamer and another man, Scott Foval, were developing a plan to provoke violence by supporters of Donald J. Trump at his rallies. Mr. Creamer’s lawsuit said the “video was heavily edited and contained commentary by O’Keefe that drew false conclusions.” According to documents filed with the court in the case, the man playing Mr. Roth had proposed an “illegal voter registration scheme, and Creamer rejected it outright as illegal.”
The lawsuit contended that Mr. Creamer had lost more than $500,000 worth of contracts because of the deceptions behind the Project Veritas operation.
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Joseph E. Sandler, a lawyer for Democracy Partners, said during opening arguments last week that Mr. O’Keefe was a “strong supporter” of Mr. Trump and had tried to tip the scales in favor of him during the 2016 election. The operation, Mr. Sandler said, was “all carried out for the principal purpose of embarrassing Hillary Clinton and electing Donald Trump.”
He described the elaborate operation as a “painstaking web of lies conjured up by Project Veritas.”
According to a Project Veritas email and trial exhibit, Mr. O’Keefe offered cash bonuses to his employees to obtain incriminating statements, and $2,500 bonuses if Mr. Trump mentioned their videos in the presidential debates later that October. The email is marked “highly confidential.”
At the trial, Mr. Sandler said Project Veritas was trying to “uncover what they themselves concocted.”
Paul A. Calli, a lawyer for Project Veritas, argued that the videos were newsworthy and pointed out that media outlets had published stories about the undercover operation. He said the lawsuit was just “sour grapes.”
In his closing statement, Mr. Calli said Project Veritas had engaged in “deceit, deception and dishonesty.” The group used those tactics, he said, so Project Veritas “can speak truth to power.”
He said there was no evidence this was a political spying operation and that the lawsuit was an attack on journalism.
“The sole purpose of the operation was journalism,” Mr. Calli said.
Before the trial, a federal judge ruled that Democracy Partners could refer to Project Veritas’s conduct as a “political spying operation.”
Project Veritas is facing legal fights on several fronts. In August, some of its former employees sued the group, depicting a “highly sexualized” work culture in which daytime drinking and drug use were common and employees worked additional hours without pay.
That same month, two Florida residents pleaded guilty in Manhattan federal court to stealing a diary belonging to the president’s daughter, Ashley Biden, and selling it to Project Veritas. According to court documents, prosecutors asserted that an employee of Project Veritas had directed the defendants to steal additional items to authenticate the diary and paid them additional money after receiving them.
No charges have been filed against Project Veritas or any of its operatives in the Ashley Biden case, and the group never published the diary. But in a sign that the investigation into the group will continue, the authorities said one of the Florida residents had agreed to cooperate. As part of that investigation, F.B.I. agents conducted court-authorized searches last year at three homes of Project Veritas employees, including Mr. O’Keefe.
Project Veritas was also ordered in August to pay Stanford University about $150,000 in legal fees after a federal judge tossed the defamation lawsuit the group filed in 2021.
Project Veritas also has an ongoing defamation suit against The New York Times.
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