Judge doesn’t stop Project Veritas over operative use

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — A federal judge in Detroit has cleared the way for Project Veritas to publish or disseminate information allegedly obtained by one of its operatives who worked as an intern for the American Federation of Teachers Michigan earlier this year.

U.S. District Judge Linda Parker on Wednesday lifted a temporary injunction against the nonprofit, saying the AFT failed to provide evidence that the 221 documents submitted to the court were trade secrets and fell under the protection of the Michigan Uniform Trade Secrets Act.

The union is accusing Veritas of using an employee, Marisa Jorge, to infiltrate the union organization to take proprietary information. They asked Parker for a preliminary injunction to prohibit the nonprofit from publishing or disseminating any information Jorge obtained unlawfully.

According to the union’s complaint, Jorge began her three-month internship in May and pretended to be a University of Michigan student interested in becoming a teacher, “regularly sought information ... beyond her assignment,” and “was granted access to a substantial amount of confidential and proprietary information including databases, confidential conferences and the status of grievance.”

The union alleges that Jorge “likely” obtained information by recording conversations without consent violating the state’s eavesdropping law, but Parker said they failed to provide such evidence.

While the case raises First Amendment issues, Parker concluded the union “has not persuaded the court that its commercial interests are more fundamental than the defendants’ First Amendment right.”

In its lawsuit, the union alleges a breach of duty of loyalty claim and alleged that as an intern, Jorge assumed the same duty of loyalty to AFT Michigan as full-time employees.

“Plaintiff alleges that defendant Jorge breached her duty of loyalty by fraudulently misrepresenting herself, misusing and mishandling confidential information, and failing to disclose that she worked for an organization whose interests conflicted with plaintiff. Accordingly, the court finds that plaintiff has a likelihood to succeed on the merits of its breach of duty of loyalty claim,” Parker wrote in her opinion.

Project Veritas, which is led by conservative activist James O’Keefe, says its role is probing fraud and corruption through undercover reporting.

Stephen Gordon, communications director for Veritas, said he could not discuss whether the company planned to publish any documents related to the “undercover operation” in Michigan but said his organization has released multiple videos regarding teachers unions in other states, including New Jersey, Kansas, and New York.

“While we don’t comment about ongoing investigations — real or imagined — we are particularly happy that the court has removed this restraint to our First Amendment rights,” Gordon said.

Weingarten and AFT Michigan President David Hecker issued a joint statement in response to the judge’s decision, saying Parker made clear to Project Veritas that its tactics have a price.

“We understand that Judge Parker chose to show deference to free speech in lifting the injunction that has been in place for three months, but she made crystal clear that AFT's claim about Project Veritas violating Michigan law when they infiltrated our confidential operations is likely to succeed,” the statement said.

Weingarten and Hecker said the decision supports the AFT’s position that it has a right of action the moment Project Veritas publishes anything obtained by its operative.

“For too long, James O'Keefe and his associates have advanced a political agenda from secret donors using secret infiltration and lies, heavily edited videos and spurious claims,” the statement said.

“O'Keefe has repeatedly declared his war on teachers, students and families organizing in the interest of high-quality public education, and routinely advances false narratives based on heavily manipulated video.

“We will be zealous in seeking full relief and damages the moment O’Keefe goes public with any of the material stolen or illegally obtained by Project Veritas associates, and in challenging media narratives that promote false propaganda in the interest of secret political agendas.”

In September, a Wayne County judge ordered Project Veritas to stop releasing information related to the Michigan AFT that the union claims was obtained illegally. The case was later moved to federal court.

Steve Klein, co-counsel for Veritas, said Wednesday that Parker’s ruling was thorough and carefully analyzed the claims brought by the AFT.

“And pretty much finds all of them baseless,” Klein said. “It’s unfortunate Veritas had to be silenced for a few months ... nevertheless, free speech was vindicated today.”

Klein said the previous court order in Wayne County “smelled of a concerted effort to shut Veritas up before it could say anything. The ruling today speaks for itself: Veritas acted with the confines of the law in its investigation.”

Asked if Klein was admitted the organization was performing an investigation at the AFT offices, Klein said he was speaking hypothetically.

Klein confirmed Jorge is an employee but declined to provide her title or age. He said the company disputes whether she took documents from AFT offices. Hecker said the union is still learning the full extent of Jorge’s actions.

Project Veritas, which is described on its website as working to “investigate and expose corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct in both public and private institutions,” has courted controversy before.

This year, O’Keefe released a video with a CNN producer caught on camera talking about the network’s Russia coverage being ratings-driven. He also released what he contends are 119 hours of raw audio secretly recorded inside CNN’s Atlanta headquarters in 2009.

In 2010, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of entering federal property under false pretenses after trying to tamper with the phones in Louisiana Democrat Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office. He called the episode a “huge misunderstanding” and defended his tactics, saying investigative reporters have been using hidden cameras for years.

The year before, he became notorious for his selectively edited videos about ACORN, the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now, which backed efforts to register voters in urban and other poor areas of the country.

He used a hidden camera to record as he brought a young woman posing as a prostitute to the group’s offices. The widely aired footage and the resulting outrage led to ACORN disbanding.

O’Keefe agreed to pay $100,000 to settle a lawsuit based on the ACORN incident.