The right-wing troll operation Project Veritas attempted — and failed — to derail accusations of sexual assault against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore in 2017 by targeting one of the Washington Post reporters who broke the story.
The Post reported on November 9 2017 on accounts from four women saying that Moore “pursued” them when he was in his early 30’s and they were teenagers. None said they had intercourse, but one of the women, Leigh Corfman, said that in 1979, when she was 14 years old, Moore “touched her over her bra and underpants […] and guided her hand to touch him over his underwear”:
“I wanted it over with — I wanted out,” she remembers thinking. “Please just get this over with. Whatever this is, just get it over.” Corfman says she asked Moore to take her home, and he did.
The story was published just over a month before a special Senate election pitting Moore, a Republican, against Democrat Doug Jones. The Post pointed out that none of the four women who spoke to them for the story “sought out” the newspaper; none of the women knew each other or worked in political circles. Corman, in fact, had “voted for Republicans in the past three presidential elections, including for Donald Trump in 2016.” According to the story:
She says she thought of confronting Moore personally for years, and almost came forward publicly during his first campaign for state Supreme Court in 2000, but decided against it. Her two children were still in school then and she worried about how it would affect them. She also was concerned that her background — three divorces and a messy financial history — might undermine her credibility.
While Moore denied the allegations, Republican Party leaders called for him to leave the race.
As so often happens, a disinformation campaign was quickly mounted online, with Twitter users pushing the claim that the newspaper — and specifically reporter Beth Reinhard — had paid Corfman and the other women who spoke to them:
The newspaper was also the subject of a “robocall” falsely presenting itself as a reporter offering money for gossip about Moore, which came to light after a pastor in Creola, Alabama, Al Moore played the recording for a local station:
The caller, claiming to be “Bernie Bernstein,” left a 27-second voice mail, which Moore played for local CBS affiliate WKRG.
“I’m a reporter for The Washington Post calling to find out if anyone at this address is a female between the ages of 54 to 57 years old, willing to make damaging remarks about candidate Roy Moore for a reward of between $5,000 and $7,000,” the caller said in the voice mail.
The caller said he would not be “fully investigating these claims” but would make a written report.
He said he could be reached by email at [email protected].
It is unclear who paid for the robocall; the Post’s executive editor, Marty Baron, said in a statement:
The call’s description of our reporting methods bears no relationship to reality. We are shocked and appalled that anyone would stoop to this level to discredit real journalism.
Moore would go on to lose that Senate election to Jones. But Veritas’ attack on the Post actually predated its reporting on Moore; according to the newspaper, an operative identified as 41-year-old Jaime Phillips spent months trying to ingratiate herself with the newspaper’s reporters:
The Washington Post story recounted:
She signed up to attend 15 related events, often accompanied by a male companion, and appeared at least twice at gatherings for departing Post staffers.
Phillips, 41, presented herself to journalists variously as the owner of a start-up looking to recruit writers, a graduate student studying national security or a contractor new to the area. This summer, she tweeted posts in support of gun control and critical of President Trump’s crackdown on illegal immigrants — a departure from the spring when, on accounts that have since been deleted, she used the #MAGA hashtag and mocked the Women’s March on Washington that followed Trump’s inauguration as the “Midol March.”
Over a two-week period, Phillips also presented herself as another woman who had been victimized by Moore as a teenager and claimed that it culminated in her obtaining an abortion.
“During the interviews, she repeatedly pressed Post reporters to give their opinions on the effects that her claims could have on Moore’s candidacy if she went public,” the story noted.
James O’Keefe, the blogger-gadfly atop Project Veritas, initially denied any link to Phillips even after reporters spotted her entering his company’s offices:
In a follow-up interview, O’Keefe declined to answer repeated questions about whether the woman was employed at Project Veritas. He also did not respond when asked if he was working with Moore, former White House adviser and Moore supporter Stephen K. Bannon, or Republican strategists.
He later released his own footage of encounters between Phillips and Washington Post reporters, claiming that “how shockingly one-sided their editorial team is.”
In October 2022, Reinhard was named a political investigations reporter for the Post’s National desk.
On February 20 2023, the Washington Post reported that O’Keefe was “removed” from Project Veritas by the group’s board of directors after demanding that the board be dissolved as a condition for him staying.
According to footage obtained by the newspaper, O’Keefe told Veritas employees in person what had happened — while also immediately broadcasting his next steps:
He hinted that he would form a rival organization, according to a video of his remarks obtained by The Washington Post, saying “the mission will perhaps take on a new name.”
“I don”t know why this is happening now,” O’Keefe said of the move against him. Dressed in suit and tie, he accused his internal adversaries of “ruining our reputation in front of supporters and donors and leaking confidential information and fabricating stories.”
O’Keefe’s forced departure came 10 days after New York Magazine reported that he had been placed on “paid leave” by Project Veritas with the possibility of removal. According to a memo obtained by The Daily Beast, O’Keefe’s behavior has been marked by abuse of employees and other bizarre behavior:
The memo’s authors describe O’Keefe as a paranoiac so fearful of leakers within his organization that he set up at least one “mole hunt” complete with private investigators and a lie detector test. Most staffers were purportedly required to return to the group’s New York headquarters for an interview with the investigators.
In another incident, a top O’Keefe lieutenant was required to take a polygraph as part of a leak investigation.
“If you can’t trust your own team let alone your own team leaders, what kind of trust do you claim to have?” one employee complained in the memo, describing the lie-detector test.
“James has become a power drunk tyrant,” one Project Veritas reportedly said in the memo.
Update 2/10/2023, 1:30 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag
Update 2/20/2023, 1:30 p.m. PST: Updated to reflect the forced departure of James O’Keefe from Project Veritas. — ag