James O’Keefe had big plans for 2020. The founder of Project Veritas, the conspiratorial right-wing group that specializes in Fox News–friendly “stings” intended to expose supposed liberal bias and corruption in American society, was planning on getting married this past May. The wedding, to a public school teacher, was to be at an exclusive country club in upstate New York. The guest list was packed with Make America Great Again world cognoscenti: Donald Trump Jr., Sean Hannity, Michelle Malkin, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and his activist wife Ginni were all invited, as were several of O’Keefe’s most generous conservative donors, including Texas shale oil billionaire George Bishop and Bullpen Capital founder Paul Martino.
The wedding was, per an email blast, “postponed indefinitely” over the coronavirus, as the pandemic swept across the state this spring and early summer. Although O’Keefe himself declined to comment on this and many other details for this story, a well-placed frenemy is “90 percent sure they broke up.” In any event, while the pandemic may have derailed his personal life, it has only heightened the urgency of some of O’Keefe’s most lucratively funded dirty tricks.
For well over a year, Project Veritas has been secretly producing undercover stings designed to undermine the integrity of absentee and mail-in ballot counts—an endeavor codenamed “Diamond Dog,” according to documents we have obtained. Diamond Dog began as only one facet of Project Veritas’s 2020 rat-fucking strategy, but with the onset of the pandemic, which has made in-person voting a dicey proposition, it has since become one of the group’s top-line action items.
The shift reflects the Republican Party’s near-existential concerns about mail-in voting in November. Donald Trump has disingenuously railed against the practice numerous times over the past few months, betraying a deep anxiety. “Mail in ballots substantially increases the risk of crime and VOTER FRAUD!” he has tweeted. At other times he has claimed: “It will be the greatest Rigged Election in history”; “IT WILL ALSO LEAD TO THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY”; and “SCAM!” Last week, he went so far as to suggest that the election should be delayed, saying that because of “Universal Mail-in Voting,” the vote would be “INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT.”
The purpose of Diamond Dog, as one source close to the organization put it, is “literally to get Trump reelected.” This source, like other past and present Project Veritas employees who have talked to us for this article, expressed fear of reprisals from the group and would only speak under the condition of anonymity.
Last year, Project Veritas’s donor development team solicited big-ticket funders with a pitch deck—frequently tailored to a given patron’s pet ideological grievances and personal hang-ups—offering tantalizing details about the group’s undercover operations for the 2020 campaign cycle. One iteration of this Apple Keynote file was prepared for an ask meeting with a person who appears to be Cognex Corporation founder Robert Shillman, a devoted funder of Islamophobic causes who was also one of O’Keefe’s would-be wedding guests. (Shillman ended up pledging to donate $50,000 to the group.) The slate of investigations in the “Dr. Bob” pitch included schemes to procure evidence of “illegal aliens voting,” mail-in ballot tampering at “nursing homes,” and “the sale of absentee ballots and voter profiles on the ‘Dark Web.’”
By the end of summer 2019, Diamond Dog had already grown to be a cross-country effort, based on internal Project Veritas memos, research notes, and other documents that we have obtained. In California and Texas, Project Veritas has tasked its operatives with unearthing supposed evidence of widespread mail-in ballot forgery. In both states, Project Veritas has worked to infiltrate the groups of volunteers and paid canvassers who collect absentee and mail-in voter applications from low-income, elderly, and minority groups—a perfectly legal practice in most states that conservatives have tried to label as nefarious “ballot harvesting.”
In Texas, Project Veritas has also coordinated in secret with a local Republican operative named Aaron Harris, codenamed “Dragon,” currently chief of staff to Republican congressman Lance Gooden. In turn, through the activist group he founded, Direct Action Texas, Harris has helped Project Veritas covertly strategize with a staffer working for the office of the state’s Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton. Paxton is leading the state’s “election integrity initiative,” one of many Republican efforts nationwide to suppress the vote under the guise of rooting out the nearly non-existent threat of voter fraud.
Granted, Project Veritas, whose fervor to own the libs is matched only by its comical incompetence, is hardly likely to tip the election in Donald Trump’s favor all by itself. But it is at the vanguard of a larger underhanded approach that Republicans, starting at the very top, are taking to the 2020 cycle. If they want to win, they really have no other choice but to undermine the vote: Trump’s poll numbers are in the basement, and he appears constitutionally incapable of making appeals beyond his hardcore supporters on the right.
Republicans have all but admitted that this is their strategy. In coordination with the Republican National Committee and a raft of independent conservative groups, Trump has staked the success of his entire reelection campaign to a widespread voter suppression effort built on the pretext of preserving election integrity. The project, led by his campaign’s senior counsel Justin Clark, has worked to place operatives in at least 10 battleground states to challenge voter rolls and procedures. Between lawsuits and local advertising blitzes—all regularly relayed to Trump in the Oval Office—the effort could cost “well over $20 million,” as the RNC told The Washington Post.
Project Veritas has been among the on-the-ground organizations at the forefront of these efforts and has benefited substantially as a result. According to internal Project Veritas documents, the group’s fundraising total for 2019 leaped up to more than $13.44 million, $4.58 million more than their 2018 returns and the group’s largest reported annual revenue figure to date. The group may be comically incompetent, but in these cursed times, we all know how dangerous comical incompetence can be once enough money and clout line up behind it.
For an operation premised on conspiracy theories and fueled by raging paranoia, it will come as no surprise that the agents helping to spearhead Project Veritas’s election mischief are oddballs on the fringes of American political life. In one slide prepared for Dr. Bob, a 69-year-old Florida resident, a registered Republican named Joseph Vancheri notifies O’Keefe of his soon-to-be status as a poll worker in Broward County, likely for undercover Election Day snooping on Project Veritas’s behalf. Vancheri, an ex-cop and die-hard Trump supporter, has routinely taken to Facebook to lash out against “all the Trump haters” and “SHEEP,” including “SHIFTY SCHIFF” and “the Idiot Warren,” using Trump’s preferred epithet “Pocohontas [sic].” A first-generation immigrant himself, Vancheri has nevertheless long harbored hardline views on immigration that echo his anxieties over the potential for illicit enfranchisement of foreigners.
In another slide, Project Veritas boasts of receiving a tip from a former broadcast meteorologist named Arch Kennedy, who found it suspicious that 300 people were all registered to vote at the address for Emory University’s Emory Muslim Student Association in Atlanta. (In all likelihood these voters, who constitute 2 percent of Emory’s total student population and .0028 percent of Georgia’s population, have their mail forwarded there.) In 2017, Arch organized one of the anti-Muslim group ACT! For America’s 28 nationwide “March Against Sharia” rallies. Held in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, it was a sparsely attended affair but still managed to include Republican Georgia State Senator Michael Williams, then mounting a doomed primary campaign for governor.
It’s unclear if either Vancheri or Kennedy’s offerings matured into full-fledged stings banked for the 2020 election. Neither they nor Project Veritas responded for comment, while the Project Veritas source who supplied the “Dr. Bob” pitch deck admitted that “a lot of it was kinda BS,” another example of the group “hyping themselves up to make themselves look better” and squeeze more money out of donors. Project Veritas went back to the well this weekend, soliciting donors in a mass email Saturday afternoon that promised a major ballot harvesting investigation that needs to be “completed as soon as possible.”
But other stings outlined in the Keynote file did materialize. The presentation, for example, teased an inside man at Pinterest who was “increasingly worried” about the platform’s “expanding community safety restrictions.” Sure enough, two months later, an ex-Pinterest Android app developer named Eric Cochran came forward with (later debunked) allegations in a series of Project Veritas videos and a Newsweek op-ed claiming that the platform was censoring anti-abortion Christian advertisers. The pitch deck also promised an exposé from a “CNN Insider” named Cary Poarch, a bombshell that fizzled in October 2019 when Poarch’s hidden recordings, taken while working as a freelance satellite truck operator for the news network, failed to expose more than the personal opinions of a few random employees.
Well before the pandemic drew national attention to mail-in
voting, these documents show a discernible focus on “ballot harvesting” as
part of the larger Republican effort to paint voting by mail as a threat to
democracy. The concern stems from the party’s entrenched belief that, as Trump has tweeted,
vote-by-mail “doesn’t work out well for Republicans,”
since it often helps low-income people and minorities.
By late August 2019, the “Story Objective” for Diamond Dog had expanded, per one internal meeting document, to exposing “corruption within CA ballot harvesting companies and other states (TX) based on intel gains.” A Project Veritas undercover operative codenamed “Magnum” had been busy “attending local Democratic events in CA to find discussions of harvesting.” Another operative codenamed “GDog” was creating an entrapment scheme by posting “ads online looking for people to join his ballot harvesting.”
Texas has been a major theater for Project Veritas’s Diamond Dog operations, in no small measure because raw demographics have been threatening to turn the state blue for years. The sense of crisis comes from the state GOP’s failure to bring Latinos into their voting bloc. The legacy of such botched strategizing has been an assault on the state’s Latino electorate itself, with right-wing officials and political operatives raising suspicions about their very legitimacy as legal participants in the voting process.
Aaron Harris, a son of white evangelical missionaries who picked up Portuguese while growing up in Brazil and went on to become fluent in Spanish, has been relentlessly stoking paranoia over mail-in ballots since his first failed foray as a paid political consultant in 2014. Despite a sizable war chest from Dallas hotel magnate and Tea Party financier Monty Bennett, Harris’s candidates in the 2015 local election for the Tarrant Regional Water District lost. He quickly became fixated on the idea that thousands of forged mail-in ballot applications had been responsible for their defeat.
Unlike some Project Veritas associates, Harris has already managed to stir up some public alarm about alleged balloting fraud in cooperation with elected officials from the Republican Party. He has made repeated open records requests for “applications for ballot by mail” and copies of signed “ballot carrier envelopes” in Tarrant County and elsewhere in Texas, eyeballing the signatures on each for signs of fraud. (Emily J. Will, the board-certified forensic document examiner who tried to warn 60 Minutes about the dubious provenance of President George W. Bush’s supposedly doctored Air National Guard records in 2004, told us that a non-expert like Harris couldn’t be relied upon to discern a forged signature.)
In 2016, Harris sent the fruits of that labor to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, leading to four conspicuously timed indictments two years later on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections. Paxton described the four Hispanic women, paid canvassers soliciting mail-in ballot applications door-to-door, as an “organized voter fraud ring.” He named (but did not charge) a former local Democratic Party leader, Stuart Clegg, as the ringleader in the court filings.
That case, which is still ongoing, reveals the ways in which the official GOP subtly coordinates with its army of right-wing irregulars in the field. Paxton stridently enforces one of the strictest voter I.D. laws in the nation, while Harris and his political allies at Direct Action Texas and Empower Texans work to independently legitimize the attorney general’s partisan vendettas. Harris and local Republican lawyer Alex Kim, for example, inserted themselves into the prosecution’s case by independently visiting one of the charged canvassers in prison, seemingly on their own initiative, in an effort to coerce the woman into flipping on Clegg. (A month after helping Harris sneak into the Tarrant County Jail to harass the canvasser, Kim won a local race to preside over the entire county as a judge for Texas’s 323rd District Court.)
Paxton’s office has often pursued these voter fraud cases through a prosecutorial diversion program, allowing them to juke their stats with “de minimis” cases without ever having to prove their arguments in open court or subject their methods to independent review. Their biggest confirmed conviction to date: sending a 37-year-old Mexican citizen and mother of four, Rosa Maria Ortega, to prison for eight years for the high crime of being confused that her status as a legal resident in Texas did not actually confer unto her the voting privileges of full United States citizenship. Ortega voted in five elections between 2004 and her 2017 sentencing, casting ballots for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2012—and, tragically, for Ken Paxton himself in the 2014 Texas attorney general’s race.
All signs point toward Paxton getting even more aggressive in 2020, thanks to a wrecked-up and paralyzed response to the pandemic by both Trump and Texas Governor Greg Abbott. Republicans are nervous that even blood-red Texas might be in play come November. Last April, Paxton threatened felony charges for anyone who requests or advocates for mail-in ballots “based solely on fear of contracting Covid-19”—a move that was upheld by the Texas Supreme Court in May, then by the Trump-stacked U.S. Supreme Court in June. It’s now sure to set the stage for many of the alleged mail-in schemes that Project Veritas will purport to expose later this year.
One local Project Veritas operative assigned to coordinate with Aaron Harris in Texas is also a former undercover volunteer: Cassandra Spencer, codenamed “Foxtrot” and sometimes “Foxtrot Smith” internally. In 2017, Spencer became O’Keefe’s “Facebook Insider” after leaving a public information officer post with the Pflugerville, Texas, police department to join Facebook’s contingent workforce operations at BCForward in Austin as a social media content moderator.
Spencer has positioned herself at the extremely online intersection of gaming culture and the alt-right. She has described herself as a “Proud Boy’s Girl” on Medium and attended “Austin’s premier anime convention” IKKiCON in Final Fantasy X cosplay. She traveled to Washington, D.C., for the inaugural DeploraBall and operates her own Twitch stream, which she dubbed “a First Amendment zone” for her conservative followers, “not like many others.” For the 2020 Democratic primary in Iowa, Spencer posed as a volunteer for presidential hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders as part of a Project Veritas sting then-codenamed “Gold Mine.”
Already staked out on the Texas ballot-harvesting vanguard, Aaron Harris “met with Foxtrot” in person and “gave her a lead with someone to follow,” per internal Project Veritas research notes. As Diamond Dog progressed, Harris’s ties to Project Veritas deepened to include longtime employee and recruiting director Spencer Meads, codenamed “Brady,” and possibly an undercover journalist (UCJ) codenamed “Peter Pan.” Project Veritas’s expanding pool of Texas sources was meant to be a state secret, but the document offered a huge clue about who might be involved in an all-caps and highlighted portion that read: “CANNOT MENTION ATTORNEY GENERAL.” In the same document, after listing a series of major metropolitan areas in Texas as potential sites for their “ballot harvesting” investigation, a question is proposed: “Where does the AG’s guy suggest they go?”
When pressed for comment on his apparent role in facilitating communications between the Texas attorney general’s office and Project Veritas, Harris responded via his congressional email, “Do not contact me about my previous employment on official channels. Learn to be competent at your job.” After it was pointed out to Harris that the internal Project Veritas documents were sourced in the early fall of 2019, approximately 10 months after he became Congressman Gooden’s chief of staff, Harris became belligerent. To questions reiterated via personal text message, he responded, “I’ve asked you to stop harassing me and you want to argue about it? You are an idiot. You just keep proving it.”
Spencer did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Only two principal targets, old Harris foes, were mentioned by name in the Project Veritas strategy document: Texas-based personal injury attorney Domingo Garcia, a former state representative and the president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC; and the Harvest Project Food Rescue of Dallas, a community group that Harris seems to believe is an insidious front through which the state’s left-wing operatives entice immigrant communities, with the lure of unsold fresh produce donated by local distributors, into filling out their own mail-in ballots and thus enfranchising themselves. (“I wake up usually at 4:30 in the morning, I have to go pick up the food by six,” Harvest Project co-founder Danaë Gutiérrez-Martínez said when asked about Harris’s allegations. “I don’t get home ’til eight at night, nine at night, sometimes, to get up the next day and do it again, especially right now with everything that’s happening. You know, I must be Superwoman if I have time to do anything else.”)
A long-since-ousted co-founder of the Harvest Project, Jose Barrientos was very publicly implicated in a mail-in ballot forgery scheme in 2017. But Paxton and the local district attorney ultimately indicted someone else entirely, 27-year-old Miguel Hernandez, for the felony offense. After 180 days stewing in jail, Hernandez was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor with the understanding that his sentence would be limited to time served.
The beef between Harris’s groups and LULAC has been considerably more fraught. In the fall of 2016, Garcia publicly offered a $25,000 reward, funded through LULAC, for any information leading to the conviction of individuals “trying to intimidate a senior in Fort Worth or anywhere in Texas.” The target of their bounty was pretty clear, teed-up as it was by a Texas state representative, Ramón Romero, who had called out Harris by name for his door-to-door inquisition of seniors in Fort Worth’s predominantly Hispanic north side. Later at that same press conference, a related community service nonprofit, the United Hispanic Council of Tarrant County, announced that it had filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against Harris’s Direct Action Texas for creating “an atmosphere of fear and intimidation” in local Hispanic neighborhoods.
In January 2019, LULAC filed a lawsuit against Attorney General Paxton and the secretary of state in Texas, David Whitley, accusing them both of violating the Voting Rights Act in their haphazard attempt to purge the state’s voter rolls of non-citizens.
Whitley’s offices would quietly walk back their initial list of 95,000 suspicious voters, many of whom were discovered to be, in fact, naturalized citizens. Shortly thereafter, San Antonio federal district court Judge Fred Biery put a stop to the purge, declaring that state Republicans were trying “to ferret the infinitesimal needles out of the haystack of 15 million Texas voters.” Harris, for his part, was unrepentant, telling the Texas Observer, “We are changing the entire discussion on voter fraud in Texas.” He was not wrong. While Harris is now planning to run for a House seat himself, his tireless efforts there have laid the groundwork for Project Veritas and its GOP partners this election season.
When mainstream Americans think about James O’Keefe, if they think about James O’Keefe at all, it’s usually in reference to his most hilarious failures: ruining his own sting on George Soros’s Open Society Foundation by leaving a self-incriminating voicemail; failing to lure a CNN reporter onto his yacht for a detailed “faux seducing” prank; revealing his unseemly ties to the billionaire mercenary Erik Prince by posting his own vanity spy training photos on social media. If Diamond Dog follows the Project Veritas playbook, it will likely focus on goosing a few unguarded comments out of canvassers and other volunteers in the hope of netting an inflammatory sound bite or two.
A modest, practically harmless October Surprise. But it’s typically down ballot where the average Project Veritas video tends to have its most pernicious effects. Less well known than O’Keefe’s blunders on the national stage are the numerous documented instances in which his stings have been cited to justify new and more onerous voter I.D. laws or other election integrity legislation in state legislatures across the country.
In April 2012, Chris McDaniel, then Mississippi’s Senate elections committee chairman, cited a Project Veritas voter fraud video as evidence justifying the passage of the state’s “photo identification requirement” bill, which the state’s Republican Governor Phil Bryant signed that May. Despite legal challenges, this law is still on the books today.
Also that year, a Republican Minnesota state representative, Steve Drazkowski, praised a locally shot O’Keefe video—in which Project Veritas undercover operatives requested ballot applications for their friends “Timothy Tebow and Thomas Brady”—during a floor debate for his party’s own draconian voter I.D. bill. While Minnesota’s Democratic Governor Mark Dayton vetoed a strict version of that voter I.D. legislation, and Minnesota voters backed his decision in a ballot initiative later that year, the state’s Republican Party still plans to revisit the issue again this year. (“We have had a number of studies that have been completed, there’s a lot of new data on this topic, and there are court cases that have been decided,” as Minnesota GOP State Senator Scott Newman ominously put it, “none of which we had in 2012.”)
O’Keefe’s “Primary of the Living Dead” stunts during the New Hampshire and North Carolina primaries in 2012—in which his operatives requested but crucially did not actually attempt to use, the ballots of deceased primary voters—aided the passage of stringent voter I.D. laws in those states. After New Hampshire enacted a law in 2018 tightening the state’s voting statutes, partly in response to a new series of Project Veritas videos, Democratic legislators made repeated attempts to repeal them, only to be thwarted by Republican Governor Chris Sununu’s veto.
O’Keefe’s wealthy donors surely remember these and other victories in vivid detail, in no small measure because they are reiterated tirelessly during O’Keefe’s paid speaking engagements and fundraising conclaves. Among Project Veritas’s 2019 contributors were several wealthy political groups, charitable foundations, and conservative billionaires with apparent interests in the outcome of Diamond Dog.
From California, a donation of at least $10,000 from a pledged $100,000 came to Veritas from Susan Groff, president of the Los Angeles-area construction equipment rental company Northwest Excavating. A prolific Republican donor along with her husband Howard, both Groffs were praised as “good friends, entrepreneurs and patriots” in a loving tribute entered into the Congressional Record by their longtime beneficiary, former GOP House Rep. Elton Gallegly. (Another $50,000 came into Project Veritas from a donor listed only as “Arnott”; the Orange County-based investment guru Robert D. Arnott, a Koch network ally and prolific Republican donor, denied responsibility when reached via email.)
In Texas, another $50,000 was passed on to Project Veritas from the Texas Free Market Fund through the group Donors Trust, the dark money “donor-advised fund” that has helped make contributions from the Kochs, the DeVos family, and others untraceable in future IRS filings. The charitable foundation of late Texas oilman Ken W. “Stinky” Davis, based like Project Veritas ally Aaron Harris in Tarrant County, also kicked in $5,000 to the group, the latest in the foundation’s influential spending spree on Republican politics in the Lone Star State and across the country.
In Florida, another donation of $50,000 came to the group through Donors Trust, this time from the free market defenders at the Thomas W. Smith Foundation.
There was also a whopping $261,000 donation from the “Smith Family.” Could it be the Smith family that has monopolized local network TV affiliates through Sinclair Broadcasting? Or is it Randall and Barbara Smith, Palm Beach residents whose vulture fund Alden Global Capital was once described by Joshua Benton, the founder of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, as “the gelatinous cube scouring the news industry’s dungeon”? Neither Smith families responded to requests for clarification on this issue.
Many additional hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of contributions to Project Veritas were attributed solely to “DT” on the group’s quarterly financial meeting documents. The initials may refer to Donors Trust or to the constellation of corporate and (ostensibly) philanthropic organizations tied to President Donald Trump himself. While Trump is a well-known past donor to Project Veritas—a framed photo of him and O’Keefe rests prominently on a bookshelf at Project Veritas headquarters in Mamaroneck, New York—many other donors were evidently so secret that they were listed simply as “anonymous” even on the group’s own internal documents.
Cash matters, but O’Keefe’s personal connections are where the depth and seamlessness of this coordination with the Republican Party become truly apparent. They also offer a glimpse into the vast network that has formed to suppress the vote this fall—a network years in the making, of which Project Veritas is but a humble node.
Take litigator William Consovoy, the legal point man on many of the conservative-funded election integrity cases pursued during the Trump era. He is, like O’Keefe, a New Jersey native with a long history in local Republican politics. A former law clerk for Clarence Thomas, Consovoy is also reportedly a friend of Federalist Society Executive Vice President Leonard Leo, whose nephew David Maxham has been a friend of O’Keefe’s since their undergraduate years at Rutgers. (Maxham, naturally, was also invited to O’Keefe’s wedding.)
This year, Leonard Leo has stepped aside from day-to-day management of the Federalist Society to run a new conservative donor group, CRC Advisors, that is pouring money into Consovoy’s legal challenges in key battleground states across the country. CRC has been steering money into something called the “Honest Elections Project,” a fictitious name filed in Virginia for Leo’s old group the Judicial Education Project, now officially called the 85 Fund. As The Guardian reported, 99 percent of the Judicial Education Project’s funding in 2018 was a single $7.8 million donation funneled through Donors Trust.
With generous assistance from the Honest Elections Project and the RNC, Consovoy’s firm Consovoy McCarthy PLLC has recently brought cases against the re-enfranchising of felons in Florida and sued to block California’s plans to deliver absentee ballots to all of the state’s registered voters. Consovoy has contributed to related motions filed in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Nevada, Michigan, and Texas, where Ken Paxton’s victory against mail-in voting in May earned praise from President Trump on Twitter.
If you strain to look beyond the lonely partisan kitsch of James O’Keefe’s bungled scams and harebrained hoaxes, it’s plain to see the march of a whole battalion of Diamond Dog operatives and lawyers turned loose on the integrity of the ballot in key battleground states.
Liz Farkas, a New York state–licensed private investigator, provided additional reporting and research for this article.