MADISON – Half a dozen liberal groups in Wisconsin say they were deceived by a longtime member of the conservative group Project Veritas this summer in an apparent attempt to get damaging footage of Democrats in a battleground state.
Black Leaders Organizing for Communities, Voces de la Frontera and others on Friday asked Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul to investigate the matter, according to a letter the groups provided to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Kaul has not said what he will do.
Project Veritas for years has misrepresented itself to get an inside look at how Democratic campaigns and liberal groups operate in Wisconsin and around the country. Its secretly recorded videos have hurt some entities, but some of the group’s claims about improprieties have fizzled when independently investigated.
Veritas’ founder, James O’Keefe, in 2010 pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for unlawfully entering federal property as part of an undercover operation at the office of then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Louisiana.
In the latest episode, a man with ties to Veritas posed as a documentary filmmaker to get interviews with liberal groups, according to those groups. A second man pretended to be a member of Our Wisconsin Revolution to get access to private meetings.
In all, six groups said they were targeted: BLOC, Voces, Our Wisconsin Revolution, Souls to the Polls, Wisconsin Race Class Narrative Project and Wisconsin Voices.
“We believe that any information they have obtained in this process will be used to intentionally misrepresent our work, prevent people from exercising their right to vote and further damage political discourse in our state,” the groups wrote in their letter to Kaul.
Kaul spokeswoman Gillian Drummond would not say if the Department of Justice would look into the matter, saying it confirms investigations only in rare circumstances.
Veritas spokesman Neil McCabe wouldn’t say whether the group was active in Wisconsin.
“We don’t comment on whether operations are ongoing or not ongoing, whether they exist or don’t exist,” he said Wednesday.
No videos from the latest operation have surfaced, but there could be many hours of footage because the pair were in touch with the liberal groups from June to September.
According to the Wisconsin groups, the two men used false identities to set up video and in-person meetings with at least 10 representatives from the six groups. The men, who called themselves Kurt Insley and Brendan Holt, “used leading questions and statements to try and bait our employees into agreeing to use illegal methods to conduct voter registration in Wisconsin,” the groups wrote in their letter to Kaul.
The groups later determined that Insley was actually Christian Hartsock, who has long been affiliated with Veritas. They made that connection by comparing photos of the man who called himself Insley with photos of Hartsock.
The liberal groups have not determined the true identity of Holt.
Hartsock did not respond to a message from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sent to him through Twitter. McCabe declined to say whether Hartsock currently works for Veritas.
Hartsock told the groups he was with a company called Zeitgeist Pictures and working on a documentary about the 1866 Wisconsin Supreme Court decision that gave Black people the right to vote, the groups said.
According to the groups, Hartsock asked his interview subjects whether they thought breaking the law was sometimes the right thing to do and whether they supported deliberately registering non-citizens to vote. His line of questioning raised the groups’ suspicions and soon afterward they determined they were talking to Hartsock, rather than a director making a film about a landmark court case.
The man calling himself Holt posed as a leader of Our Wisconsin Revolution, a group that spun off from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Using those credentials, he attended a Wisconsin Voices training on registering voters, as well as rallies and protests. He repeatedly promoted the idea of registering felons and non-citizens to vote, even though doing so is illegal, according to the groups that wrote to Kaul.
“They flagrantly made some illegal suggestions that raised some big red flags for our group,” said Lisa Lucas, communications director of Wisconsin Voices.
“It’s also quite possible that they were trying to goad somebody into doing some illegal activity because we got wind of that happening. That didn’t happen at all. Nobody took the bait.”
While McCabe would not say whether Veritas was involved in the effort, he said the group is careful to make sure it follows the law.
“Part of Project Veritas’ training for undercover journalists is a very strict adherence to the law,” he said. “Undercover journalists are told directly they are not to knowingly, willingly break the law.”
Veritas has previously gone after Voces, an immigrant rights group based in Milwaukee. In 2016, Veritas secretly recorded liberal activist Scott Foval at a Voces office and at a bar, where he bragged about disrupting GOP events and talked about busing people into Wisconsin from other states.
The state Department of Justice twice reviewed those recordings and found no laws were broken. The agency at the time was headed by Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel.
Veritas at the time also filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Voces, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and others alleging they had violated campaign finance laws. The elections agency dismissed the complaint in 2018, finding no one had broken any laws.
The 2016 operation also targeted Democracy Partners, a Democratic group based in Washington, D.C. Democracy Partners sued Veritas for $1 million in 2017. That lawsuit is ongoing.
Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera, in a statement called Veritas “proven con men with a long record of misinformation and fraudulent misrepresentation.”
“Their doctoring of facts and spreading of disinformation proves that the far right believes they need to play dirty to win in November,” her statement said. “Fortunately for us, their tactics are transparent and ineffective.”
Also in 2016, a Republican activist with ties to Veritas tried to get a job with the campaign of Russ Feingold, a Democrat who was running to try to win back his U.S. Senate seat. Feingold’s campaign caught onto her plan early on.
In 2014, Veritas turned its hidden cameras on Republican state Sen. Mike Ellis of Neenah, a longtime champion of tightening campaign finance laws. In the Veritas video, Ellis described setting up an illegal political action committee to attack his Democratic opponent.
Ellis, who often clashed with his fellow Republicans, dropped his reelection bid two days after the video was released.
Also that year, O’Keefe went after Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Menomonee Falls for his support of the Voting Rights Act.
O’Keefe first made headlines in 2009 with videos about ACORN that led to the dismantling of that community organizing group. The videos also resulted in O’Keefe agreeing to pay a $100,000 legal settlement to a former ACORN employee.
Contact Patrick Marley at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @patrickdmarley.