Originally published in The Intercept on July 23, 2018.
A Michigan judge issued a ruling late last week granting the American Federation of Teachers the right to discovery in an ongoing legal battle with Project Veritas, the sting group launched by conservative provocateur James O’Keefe.
The escalating fight, which is being played out in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, began last September, when the teachers union filed a lawsuit accusing Project Veritas of infiltrating and illegally gathering proprietary information from its Michigan affiliate.
Project Veritas, a right-wing activist group known for releasing undercover video exposés of liberal organizations like ACORN and Planned Parenthood, has taken a special interest in targeting teacher unions over the last eight years. The group has been accused of routinely doctoring its videos, and last year it was caught trying to feed a false story about Roy Moore, then a U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama, to the Washington Post. The discovery in the Michigan case may shed new light on its internal operations.
According to the September complaint, which was filed in state court, Marisa Jorge, a political operative for Project Veritas, presented herself as a University of Michigan student named Marissa Perez who was interested in becoming a teacher. She applied for a summer internship with AFT Michigan and was hired in May 2017. For the next three months, she allegedly gathered a wide range of confidential information on the teachers union. The lawsuit claims that on multiple occasions Jorge was found alone in other employees’ offices, accessing information she, as an intern, had no right to see. In other cases, she requested to attend bargaining sessions, was given access to internal databases, and secretly recorded conversations, according to the complaint.
A Michigan judge responded to the lawsuit by issuing a restraining orderagainst Project Veritas in September, barring the group from publishing or disclosing any materials it may have collected from the union. The next month, following a motion by Project Veritas, the case was moved from state to federal court. In December, U.S. District Judge Linda Parker lifted the restraining order. Parker said the AFT had not sufficiently demonstrated it would be harmed by what Project Veritas had collected. In her decision she wrote that “a preliminary injunction most certainly will infringe upon Defendants’ First Amendment right.”
The union went back to court in early May to try once more to prevent Project Veritas from releasing any documents or videos it had obtained from its Michigan affiliate. Parker denied the AFT’s second request, again citing First Amendment concerns.
Project Veritas began releasing information from AFT Michigan immediately thereafter. In its first post, headlined “BREAKING: Alleged Child Molester Paid Off in Union Negotiation by Michigan American Federation of Teachers,” Project Veritas boasted of releasing documents and undercover footage “which reveals that the union protected a teacher after accusations of sexual misconduct with a seven- or eight-year-old girl arose.”
AFT president Randi Weingarten and AFT Michigan President David Hecker released a joint statement following the video’s release, calling it a “heavily spliced” smear tactic intended to undermine educators and their unions.
“In this particular case, following accusations of a teacher’s misconduct with a child of a woman he was dating years before, the union and district officials worked together to separate a teacher from service and make sure students were protected,” Weingarten and Hecker stated. “To this day, the teacher denies the accusations, and no charges have been filed. AFT Michigan continues to prioritize the well-being of students and the promise of high-quality public education in Michigan.”
Parker’s new ruling, issued on Thursday, allows the AFT to amend its legal complaint to include information about the video Project Veritas released in May. It also paves the way for the union to begin requesting information through the discovery process.
“It’s going to get interesting now because we have the opportunity to dig pretty deep into Project Veritas and their activities,” AFT Michigan attorney Mark Cousens told The Intercept. “We can discover not only how they work, but what they did in Michigan.” Cousens said the union, through discovery, might request information on Jorge’s relationship to Project Veritas, background on Jorge, and what materials she may have taken while working as an intern.
Weingarten said in a statement that her union is “committed to holding Project Veritas accountable for its unlawful misrepresentations, infiltrations, and splicing and dicing of unlawfully obtained material to smear teachers and public schools.” Weingarten pledged to “move forward in our efforts to bring to light the deceptive, unscrupulous distortion tactics Project Veritas is known for.”
Marco Bruno, a spokesperson for Project Veritas, dismissed the decision. He told The Intercept that the AFT “is winning only the highest award for delusional self-congratulations. Contrary to its claims, AFT’s reckless efforts throughout this lawsuit to censor a Veritas publication failed repeatedly. As far as the case goes, they have won nothing, and their latest pleadings are as weak as their previous complaint. AFT is wasting union members’ dues on a frivolous lawsuit that it has no chance of winning.”
Project Veritas has long targeted teacher unions. In 2010, O’Keefe, the group’s founder, infiltrated a New Jersey Education Association leadership conference and produced a project called “Teachers Union Gone Wild.” His group produced another video last summer that purported to show a New Jersey teacher offering journalists cocaine at a union convention. After that video was released, O’Keefe went on the radio to say his teacher union exposés are not finished. “I don’t ever, ever expect the institutions to hold people accountable, so it’s up to exposures,” O’Keefe said, promising that “we have more coming out.”
And indeed, they did. In May, on top of its AFT Michigan work, Project Veritas released two more undercover videos of New Jersey union officials discussing how to protect teachers accused of abuse, which subsequently led to the suspension of two union presidents. New Jersey Democrats, including state Senate president Steve Sweeney and Gov. Phil Murphy, have since called for investigations into the union’s behavior.
The NJEA released a statement in response to the videos, saying it “does not, in any instance, condone the abuse or mistreatment of children or the failure to properly report allegations of abuse.” The union also announced it would be commissioning an independent review of its local affiliates to ensure that staff and leaders “understan[d] and clearly communicat[e] the responsibility of all school employees to report any suspected abuse of children.”
While the NJEA charged Project Veritas with being a political group “with a long history of releasing deceptively edited videos that later prove to have been dishonest and misleading,” Sweeney did not back down. “They can attack the videos and who did the videos all they want,” he told NJ Advance Media, referring to the union. “But those words were real, those actions were real, and they need to be dealt with.”
Also in May, Project Veritas released another video, showing teachers union officials in Ohio discussing how they would defend educators who abused students. State union officials called the videos doctored and edited to fit the organization’s agenda.
O’Keefe hinted at more videos in the future. Following the Michigan, New Jersey, and Ohio videos, Project Veritas promised to release “more undercover videos of teachers unions from ALL ACROSS THE COUNTRY in the coming days and weeks.”