Right-wing political provocateur James O’Keefe has a history of going after voting rights and pro-choice groups. Now a group with ties to O’Keefe, Breitbart News, and White House senior adviser Steve Bannon are allegedly branching out to wage “sting” operations against an environmental organization.
O’Keefe’s alleged associates, though, failed in their recent attempt to discredit the League of Conservation Voters and could be facing an investigation by the California attorney general’s office. LCV filed a complaint last Friday against three individuals who allegedly infiltrated its operations, at least two of whom “could be associated with” O’Keefe and have past ties to him, investigative journalist Jane Mayer wrote in a New Yorker article published Tuesday.
According to the LCV complaint, “at least two” of the individuals, who are identified as Christian Hartsock and Daniel Sandini, reportedly worked with O’Keefe in the past, though the environmental group’s letter acknowledged that the group does not know whether O’Keefe was directly involved in the sting. Hartsock and Sandini also have connections to Stephen Bannon, President Donald Trump’s chief political adviser, Mayer reported.
Both Hartsock and Sandini received film credits in Occupy Unmasked, a 2012 documentary directed by Bannon. The film’s cast notes describe Hartsock as a longtime collaborator of O’Keefe’s and a “protégé” of Andrew Breitbart, the late founder of the right-wing website Breitbart News, which Bannon ran prior to joining Trump’s presidential campaign last year, according to Mayer. The cast notes also say Sandini was “inspired by Andrew Breitbart and James O’Keefe.”
In its complaint, LCV alleges that the “third imposter,” Ann Vandersteel, made her appearance in June 2017, posing as “Ann Steel,” the widow of a wealthy oil investor. In reality, Vandersteel is a conservative commentator on YourVoice America Radio, the LCV explains.
“Vandersteel appears to have falsely described herself to LCV as the widow of a wealthy oil investor who had decided to become politically active because of the opposition to President Trump. In June, following Sandini’s introduction of her to LCV staff, she received a complimentary invitation to LCV’s annual Capital Dinner, its largest fundraising event. In July, she was given extensive briefings from LCV staff in LCV’s Washington, D.C. office about confidential LCV priorities,” the complaint states.
In 2010, O’Keefe was sentenced to three years of probation, 100 hours of community service, and a $1,500 fine after taking a plea bargain following a botched sting attempt at the office of then-Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA). In 2013, after receiving immunity from criminal prosecution from the California attorney general, he paid $100,000 to settle a civil suit after one of the people he filmed in his targeting of the now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) claimed he violated a state law against secret recordings of an individual’s voice and image.
The Trump White House has used O’Keefe videos in an attempt to discredit media organizations. At a White House press briefing in June, spokeswoman Sarah Sanders accused CNN of being “repeatedly wrong” on its news stories and encouraged people to watch an unverified video from James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas instead. Furthermore, Trump’s charitable foundation, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, has a connection to O’Keefe, giving $10,000 to Project Veritas on May 13, 2015.
The League of Conservation Voters said the months-long campaign of “fraud and deception” against the environmental group was designed to undermine its mission and disrupt its nationwide efforts, including in California, to advance conservation objectives. “These deceptions were used to gain access to our confidential strategic plans, learn the identities of our donors, participate in meetings with state and federal elected leaders, and possibly to record conversations without permission,” the organization says in its complaint.
LCV requested the California attorney general’s office open a criminal investigation into the operatives for potential fraud, racketeering, unfair business practices, trespassing, invasion of privacy, and possible violation of the state’s two-way-consent eavesdropping laws.
The environmental group said it discovered that operatives allegedly associated with O’Keefe’s right-wing Project Veritas and its affiliate, the Project Veritas Action Fund, allegedly used fake identities in order to meet with LCV staff and supporters, presumably in an effort to bait them into statements that could be doctored or taken out of context to undermine our work.
The environmental group believes the infiltration started in December 2016 when Hartsock entered a California LCV office in Oakland, California, pretending to be “Trent Maynard” and claiming to represent an unnamed potential donor. There are reports that Hartsock has been involved in many James O’Keefe and Project Veritas “undercover” videos, LCV said in its letter.
An ensuing meeting took place in January 2017, at the California LCV office in Los Angeles where Hartsock stated he represented “Lester Rosen,” whom he described as a wealthy, but politically inexperienced, individual who was motivated to donate to progressive causes because of the election of Donald Trump.
Hartsock represented himself as working at the Breakthrough Development Group and allegedly presented a business card using his false identity, Trent Maynard. He mentioned the possibility of a large donation the California LCV chapter. LCV said it believes the Breakthrough Development Group is the name of a front group previously used by Project Veritas.
“It’s an all-too-familiar playbook from extremist individuals who will stop at nothing, and are willing to cross ethical and even legal lines, to damage reputable progressive organizations and prop up their false narratives,” LCV President Gene Karpinski said in a statement on Tuesday. “We knew we couldn’t sit idly by once we discovered their infiltration.”
The organization may seek to work with other law enforcement agencies, as well as pursue legal action against the individuals and others associated with this “fraudulent activity,” Karpinski said.
“It’s no surprise that, in the face of an administration rolling back progress on climate change and clean air and water, we’ve become a target,” he said. “The bottom line is this: We will not be intimidated by craven efforts to smear our work and distract from this administration’s real, dangerous attacks on voting rights and the planet.”