The Sierra Club, one of the nation’s oldest and most prominent environmental groups, was infiltrated earlier this year by a right-wing activist with alleged connections to Project Veritas, a conservative undercover video production company that has faced multiple lawsuits and criminal charges.
Southern California conservative activist Ernie White, using the alias Earl White, began volunteering in the office of the Los Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club in April in an attempt to undermine the organization’s work, according to the environmental group.
By volunteering with the Sierra Club through an alias, White was hoping to use the environmental group’s name in order to gain access to federal campaigns during the midterm election cycle, Maggie Kash, communications director for the Sierra Club, told ThinkProgress.
White made false claims to at least one federal campaign about his volunteer role with the Sierra Club, the group said. Previously, he had been identified as part of a Project Veritas group that infiltrated Democrat Kyrsten Sinema’s Senate campaign in Arizona, separate from his effort to get inside the Sierra Club.
White allegedly approached the campaign of Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) about doing fundraising work, using his volunteer association with the Sierra Club. He was so persistent in his requests for time with Tester’s campaign staff that the campaign contacted the Sierra Club’s national office to ask about him — a short time before the Sierra Club received a tip about his infiltration.
White was removed from his volunteer role as soon as his affiliation with Project Veritas was discovered in early November. The Sierra Club said it has begun implementing new security practices to ensure that similar operatives “intent on harming” the organization, staff, and volunteers are not successful.
The Sierra Club doesn’t believe White obtained anything embarrassing about the organization or gained access to sensitive information or databases. But Kash emphasized the group is concerned he may have secretly videotaped or recorded conversations with individuals who thought they were having a private conversation. “That’s Project Veritas’s MO,” she said.
“We are looking at legal options, given that California, where this occurred, is a state where it’s illegal to secretly record someone without their consent,” she said.
Conservative activists are increasingly using surreptitious means to infiltrate progressive organizations, including environmental groups, with proven track records of success. Many nonprofit organizations that rely on volunteers for large amounts of work can be susceptible to infiltration by opponents. The Sierra Club, for instance, has more than 3.5 million members, volunteers, and supporters across 63 chapters.
The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) was infiltrated in 2017 by individuals allegedly associated with James O’Keefe, the political provocateur who founded Project Veritas in 2010.
The LCV, in a complaint filed with the California attorney general’s office in August 2017, said it discovered that operatives allegedly associated with Project Veritas and its affiliate, the Project Veritas Action Fund, 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 the group’s work.
The LCV said Tuesday it has not received any updates from the attorney general’s office on its letter of complaint.
Project Veritas declined to comment on whether White was working with the organization in his volunteer work for the Sierra Club and his alleged infiltration of the Sinema and Tester campaigns.
“We do not comment on investigations either real or imagined,” Project Veritas spokesperson Marco Brunco said in an email to ThinkProgress.
White, a media personality and activist in Southern California who works on the fringes of Republican politics, appeared regularly as a pro-Trump commentator on RT America, the Russian government-funded television network, and the right-wing One America News Network. But those appearances stopped about a year ago. His personal YouTube channel has not been updated in more than a year.
In his commentary, White applauded Donald Trump’s rejection of widely accepted scientific consensus on climate change. In an 2016 appearance on the Dr. Drew Show, prior to Trump’s election as president, White falsely claimed the “science is not settled” on climate change.
On the campaign trail, if Trump had said he believed in man-made climate change, “he would lose everybody because that is still up for discussion,” White said.
“I’m from Chicago. We have four seasons. It’s called climate change,” White said on the show. “That is what climate change is.” This is a common refrain from climate science deniers who fail (or refuse) to acknowledge that weather and climate are two different things.
In his role as a Project Veritas operative, White and others allegedly infiltrated Sinema’s campaign in Arizona, using the same alias, Earl White, according to watchdog group Project Veritas Exposed. Sinema narrowly won the seat that opened with the retirement of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ).
Along with volunteering for the Sierra Club, White has served on the Riverside County Republican Party Central Committee as recently as 2015, according to Project Veritas Exposed.
White is reportedly the founder and president of Citizens Against Agenda 21. Agenda 21 is a voluntary United Nations sustainable development plan created in 1992. Conspiracy theorists, such as right-wing media personality Glenn Beck, claim Agenda 21 is an attempt to create a one-world government.
In 2010, White allegedly was part of a conservative group that protested a plan to build a mosque in Temecula, California.
White did not respond to ThinkProgress’ requests for comment.
Project Veritas Exposed received an anonymous tip on November 3 about White using an alias to infiltrate the Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club. The watchdog group was able to confirm White’s ties to Project Veritas through its connections to the Sinema campaign.
Project Veritas Exposed is run by Lauren Windsor and sponsored by American Family Voices, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Windsor also is a partner at Democracy Partners, a consulting group that filed a lawsuit against Project Veritas in June 2017. Democracy Partners is seeking more than $1 million in damages, alleging that Project Veritas and its founder, O’Keefe, sent an intern using a false name to infiltrate Democracy Partners’ offices about two months before the 2016 general election.
While the Sierra Club is confident White was unable to access any sensitive organizational information, the group decided to reveal the infiltration in the hopes of making other progressive organizations aware of the tactics used by right-wing activists.
In the past, Project Veritas has targeted Planned Parenthood, a Democratic senator, and voting rights group ACORN, secretly taping conversations and using undercover operatives to bait people into admitting wrongdoing or bias.
During Roy Moore’s unsuccessful 2017 Senate campaign in Alabama, Project Veritas attempted to bait the Washington Post into reporting a false story about a woman claiming she’d been impregnated by Moore. The operation ultimately failed after the newspaper’s reporters became suspicious of the woman’s claim and inconsistencies in her story.
Since its launch, Project Veritas’ largest funders have included DonorsTrust and Donors Capital Fund, Dunn’s Foundation for the Advancement of Right Thinking, Bradley Impact Fund, and The Roland Family Foundation. The Trump Foundation, according to its 2015 tax filing, also reported making not one but two $10,000 donations to Project Veritas in tax-year 2015.
“Project Veritas is doing various nefarious actions like this to damage organizations that do good work,” Kash said. “Whenever one of our organizations experience this sort of infiltration, it’s really important to throw as much sunlight on it as possible so that we can prevent that from happening at other groups because the work we’re doing right now is so important in this political environment.”