WASHINGTON, D.C. — “No, this is not a joke,” conservative media provocateur James O’Keefe said in a news conference Tuesday. O’Keefe’s group, Project Veritas, had just released a video he claims shows Hillary Clinton’s marketing director accepting a $75 campaign contribution from a Canadian citizen who wants to buy a T-shirt and pin.
The video shows a journalist with Project Veritas helping a Canadian citizen give a $40 donation to Clinton’s campaign. The Canadian woman attempts to buy the campaign merchandise at Clinton’s campaign launch event in New York City, but is turned down by Clinton’s director of marketing and compliance manager. The Canadian then offers to give her money to the Project Veritas journalist to give to the campaign, and the campaign accepts $75 in cash from the journalist.
In Tuesday’s news conference, O’Keefe and his attorney contradicted one another about whether the Project Veritas journalist’s $75 donation included some of his or her own money. O’Keefe said the $75 was from the Canadian, while the attorney claimed $35 of it was the journalist’s money.
Either way, the donation does not exceed the Federal Election Commission’s $200 reporting requirement and the $2,000 threshold which would make the contribution from a foreign national a criminal offense.
“This isn’t about the amount,” O’Keefe told reporters. “This is about the willingness to contravene the law.”
O’Keefe admits that his group violated campaign finance law by making the donation for the unnamed and allegedly random Canadian woman. When asked to identify the Canadian, O’Keefe said his journalists did not get her name and have been unable to identify her — or confirm that she’s actually a Canadian citizen.
Benjamin Barr, an attorney with Project Veritas, said the group’s own campaign finance violation is akin to jaywalking. “It’s a technical violation of the law,” Barr told reporters. “This is a low-dollar threshold contribution. There’s no reporting issues at play. It’s less than $200. So at most, it would be a small civil penalty.”
He explained that what he’s “really worried about” is that the Clinton campaign is taking in a “wide array of contributions” adding up to more than $2,000, which would bring criminal sanctions. But the group presented no evidence of any additional unlawful campaign contributions by foreign nationals.
Under FEC law, campaigns can face criminal sanctions if they accepted more than $2,000 from foreign nationals. But as of Tuesday, O’Keefe has only hinted that he has more videos showing further violations by the Clinton campaign, raising questions from reporters about why he didn’t present all his evidence at once.
“We release these one at a time,” he said, adding later that “this is just the beginning.”
ThinkProgress asked O’Keefe if the Clinton campaign’s alleged violation is any worse than Project Veritas’ campaign finance violation. O’Keefe got defensive, saying that Clinton’s staff knew what the law was and “contravened” it anyway.
“I’m not a senior official with the Hillary campaign and responsible for compliance with a presidential campaign,” he said. “We would argue that their activities and behavior and their intent here is much more important than what my videographer did in the moment. I’m not running for president, I don’t manage a presidential campaign, and I’m not a senior compliance officer. We were just a conduit to a transaction — and that’s newsworthy.”
It is unlawful for a foreign national to make a donation to a campaign, but it is legal for someone to buy something from a campaign and give it to a foreign national. Foreigners are also permitted to attend campaign fundraisers.
O’Keefe said he has not yet contacted the FEC but has sent a letter to the Clinton campaign asking it to refund the donation he claims is unlawful. But the Clinton campaign told ThinkProgress the video shows a Project Veritas operative trying to “entrap campaign staffers who very clearly rejected any foreign donation.”
“Our staffers understand and follow the law, as demonstrated even in their selectively edited video,” Jesse Ferguson, senior spokesperson for the Clinton campaign, told ThinkProgress. “Project Veritas, on the other hand, has been caught trying to commit fraud, falsify identities and break campaign finance law — not surprising, given that their founder has already been convicted for efforts like this.”
In 2010, O’Keefe was sentenced to three years of probation, 100 hours of community service, and ordered to pay a $1,500 fine after he pleaded guilty to his involvement in a break-in to then-Sen. Mary Landrieu’s (D-LA) office. Before that, he became famous for secretly taping workers from the community activist group ACORN offering him financial advice while he posed as a pimp.
The ACORN video was criticized for being highly-edited and O’Keefe was then forced to release an unedited version. But O’Keefe said Tuesday he does not intend to release an unedited version of the Clinton video because he holds himself to the same standard as journalists — and journalists aren’t required to publish their full, unedited notebooks.
At Tuesday’s news conference, one reporter asked O’Keefe: “Is this the best you have?” O’Keefe responded, saying this is just one of many videos he intends to release.
“It could get worse.”