Exclusive: What’s Eating James O’Keefe?
Just about everything—from Hollywood hypocrites to his lack of recognition to "hit pieces" like this one
One afternoon in early May, James O’Keefe walks down the sidewalk in Manhattan’s SoHo district, a sense of purpose in his stride. A tall and bulky 29-year-old, he’s dressed in sleek sunglasses and a brown suede jacket, like a cool plainclothes cop in a crime show, but the side part in his reddish hair is classic Young Republican. Passing a stretch of bustling outdoor cafes, O’Keefe pulls out a cellphone and gives precise orders to the person on the other end: “Just park in front of the Mercedes on Lafayette, headed south.” In 15 minutes, O’Keefe, who made his name being a thorn in the side of the left, will attempt to entrap Chris Talbot, an associate of actress Susan Sarandon, in a Hollywood scandal.
O’Keefe is the head of Project Veritas, the nonprofit he says he created in 2011 “to revive investigative journalism,” though his definition of “investigative journalism” is unique. O’Keefe and his operatives prey on the ignorance of their marks, generally people associated with the liberal establishment, hoping to capture them on hidden camera saying something unsavory. The raw footage is edited for dramatic effect and then released on the Internet, set to explode like a firecracker.
O’Keefe’s rise to infamy began in 2009 when he and a friend, posing as pimp and prostitute, took down ACORN, perhaps the country’s most prominent advocacy group for the poor. Then two of O’Keefe’s operatives recorded an executive at National Public Radio in 2011 making derogatory statements about Republicans and the Tea Party, hastening the departures of the exec and his boss.
But over the last few years, the explosions have been pretty small. Despite some splashy coverage, he’s been unable to generate the kind of media storm that accompanied his earlier work. O’Keefe, however, believes his current project will make waves.
The plans were hatched months ago, after O’Keefe learned a surprising fact: Matt Damon’s 2012 film Promised Land, which portrays the fracking industry in a negative light, was partially funded by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, a subsidiary of the United Arab Emirates state media company. Conservatives—namely the Heritage Foundation—smelled a broader conspiracy. The Arab Emirates is a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and so, the logic went, given the threat American energy independence posed to their bottom line, the Emirates-based company must have a financial interest in keeping fracking unpopular in the United States.
Image Nation has also funded such movies as The Help, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Men in Black 3. There was no proof of any nefarious activity—and even if there were, it would be hard to imagine that a tiny indie film like Promised Land with a $15 million budget would have much of an effect. Nonetheless, O’Keefe was outraged.
And so he came up with an idea: O’Keefe would expose the injustice and prove that Hollywood liberals are corrupt hypocrites willing to collude with the enemy. He set up an LLC called Beacon International, a fictitious advertising agency that represents the business interests of a Middle Eastern client named Muhammad. On Muhammad’s behalf, Beacon reached out to various environmentally conscious filmmakers with a proposition: We will give you millions of dollars to create an anti-fracking movie, as long as you’re willing to cover the money trail.
O’Keefe admits to not having a deep knowledge about the environmental consequences of fracking, or the science of climate change in general—in fact, he has no position on it. Regardless, he had already completed one video that appears to ensnare several eco-conscious celebrities, including actress Mariel Hemingway, actor Ed Begley Jr. and director Josh Tickell. Now he wants the scalp of well-known liberal Susan Sarandon—O’Keefe sometimes refers to his targets as “scalps”—but first, he’ll have to go through her adviser, Chris Talbot.
A shiny black Escalade whips around the corner, and the rear door swings open to reveal a man called “Muhammad bin Rashidi,” who is actually an actor. O’Keefe introduces us. “Hello, Mr. Michael,” Muhammad says with a mild Middle Eastern accent. Sitting next to him is “Steve Sanchton,” a silver-haired man who will act the part of a representative from Beacon International, the fictitious ad agency. He smiles and nods.
I’m here to observe the last rehearsal before the sting. O’Keefe stands on the curb and quizzes his operatives on their backstories.
“So what are you guys gonna be talking about today?” O’Keefe asks. “What ground are you gonna cover?”
“Basically,” Sanchton says, “we’re gonna, uh…we want to keep fracking from getting a hold in North America.”
“OK,” O’Keefe says, waiting for him to elaborate.
“Because we’ve got some big money involved in Dubai and the Middle East,” Sanchton explains, specifying that Muhammad wants to put $4.5 million toward an anti-fracking film.
“Who else have you been talking to?” O’Keefe asks.
“Uh,” Sanchton says, glancing around as if searching for an answer.
Muhammad interjects, mentioning Tickell and Begley, as well as Ernest Hemingway, apparently forgetting that he’d met with the long-dead author’s granddaughter, Mariel. No one corrects him. “They agree to keep my name out of this, since I really don’t want my name to be involved. I just want my bottom line to be covered,” Muhammad says. “If you want to fix all the problems in the world, be my guest.”
O’Keefe runs down the street and returns five minutes later. “Here’s $200 petty cash,” he says, handing the money to Muhammad.
“That’s not enough,” Muhammad says.
“How much do you need?” O’Keefe asks. “This is not the Beverly Hills Hotel—this is a cafe. Order him whatever he wants. Save the receipts. That way, when we get audited by the IRS, we cover our bases.”
“Is that a joke?” I ask.
“Probably half-serious,” O’Keefe says.
Moments later Muhammad bin Rashidi and Steve Sanchton head into the cafe, wearing hidden cameras. O’Keefe and I find an outdoor table at a restaurant down the block. He settles in and orders a goat cheese and beet salad, as well as a side of edamame. “I’m trying to eat healthy,” he says.
I ask O’Keefe if he’s trying to make a pro-fracking video. “I avoid characterizations. What I do,” he says, a look of heavy seriousness passing over his face, “is cinema verité.”
Toward the end of the meal, O’Keefe receives a phone call. “That is awesome news,” he says. He hangs up the phone and turns to me. “They bought it hook, line and sinker. The whole fracking bottom-line thing.” He raises a hand to his face and laughs in amazement. “This story is going to be huge.”
Despite his willingness to invade the space of others, O’Keefe can be very cagey about his own. “I don’t know if I’m comfortable letting people into my personal life,” he says. “So far, you’ve been privileged to most things people just don’t see.” If this is true, then most people don’t get to see much.
One person who is intimate with O’Keefe’s world is a former associate of his, whom I meet one afternoon at a Starbucks in midtown Manhattan. He worked closely with O’Keefe for a year, until he was abruptly fired. Though he’s willing to speak on the record about his old boss, he asks to not be named.
“If you work for James, you have to believe in the James O’Keefe project,” he says. “James just believes in his ideas so much that if you ever said, ‘That’s absolutely idiotic,’ he took it very personally.”
He recalls that O’Keefe needed to be “shielded” from certain negative comments in emails or videos. “He got death threats all the time,” he says. “Some of them were very creative. One guy said, ‘I want to shove a gasoline nozzle up your ass and light a match.’” Before O’Keefe could read such messages, the former colleague would delete them. As much as O’Keefe loathed criticism, he lapped up any sign of affirmation. “He loved media recognition. He always had everything framed—all the covers of the papers. He loved the praise. But at the same time, he hated the media because he always felt like they weren’t giving him enough credit.”
This is the apparent paradox of O’Keefe: He both loathes the mainstream media and yearns for its attention and approval—but is also dead certain the cards are stacked against him. “Puleeze,” he tweeted in April. “If any reporter got as many scalps at private leviathans as @Project_Veritas got in govt, Nobel Prizes would follow.”
The former colleague recalls that O’Keefe once said to him, “‘What I do is more important than what any governor in the country does.’” At the same time, he adds, “James doesn’t have an ideology like Sean Hannity does. A lot of it comes from what would be entertaining, what would be viewer-worthy, what would be fundraising-worthy—the business side of it.”
But for O’Keefe, business is always personal. Before we part ways, the former colleague warns that O’Keefe maintains a constant level of paranoia. “He’s very, very defensive,” he says. “But James has been through a lot.”
James O’Keefe grew up in middle-class Westwood, New Jersey—an insular, solidly white community located less than an hour from New York City in the northeastern corner of the state. O’Keefe’s father is an engineer, his mother a physical therapist. Though he grew up in a conservative household, O’Keefe was not a particularly political child. He was an Eagle Scout, and while quiet and introspective, he loved musical theater. A talented dancer, he performed in plays and worshipped Michael Jackson, practicing moonwalking incessantly.
During his junior prom, he glided across the dance floor like the King of Pop himself. “And now wherever I go,” he says, “they ask me to do the Michael Jackson move.” It was his first taste of fame, and many people that have known O’Keefe agree that he cares very much about being famous. (He occasionally produces pop music with a friend, and moonwalks in music videos.)
In 2002, he enrolled at Rutgers University, where his public persona began to take shape. As a freshman, he was ill-equipped for life on a campus with some 30,000 undergraduates, nearly three times the size of his hometown. He had a hard time making friends, and seemingly desperate to connect with people, he created an online diary. The entries from that period reflect a boy who is becoming politically radicalized, but rather than dive headfirst into left-wing idealism, as one might expect of a young college student, O’Keefe seems to have cannonballed into Rush Limbaugh’s swimming pool.
In January of his freshman year, he wrote a post entitled “Tolerate This.” Written as a slam poem, O’Keefe attacked his classmates for not appreciating the heroic efforts of the sitting president: “Your ignorance thrives when you describe/Bush as a Texas cowboy running astray.”
As an upperclassman, life improved markedly for O’Keefe. He found likeminded friends and formed a small, conservative circle, developing an outspoken political voice. He started a provocative conservative journal called The Centurion with a $500 grant from the Leadership Institute, a group based in Washington, D.C., that trains young conservative activists, journalists and future politicians. (Its alumni include Mitch McConnell and Ralph Reed.) The journal was an anachronism, recalling the neocon spirit of the early ’80s. Its chief targets were political correctness, multiculturalism and affirmative action.
“James and his friends were very bright, but they had no idea what they were talking about,” says James Livingston, who was the paper’s faculty adviser. “I thought [O’Keefe] was an arrogant little shit, but I found him fascinating. What makes him think he’s so right?”
Around the same time, O’Keefe produced his first videos. One captured an affirmative action bake sale, in which he charged whites more than blacks for goods. Another video targeted what he called “The New McCarthyism.” Apparently, a food truck on campus was censored for giving sandwiches names such as “fat bitch” and “fat dyke.” Though not exactly an unreasonable move on the school’s part, O’Keefe believed it was an example of the liberal machine stepping on the constitution. In response, he and a few friends, pretending to be members of the Irish Heritage Society, complained to an administrator about the presence of Lucky Charms cereal in the cafeteria, claiming that the leprechaun on the box was offensive. Based on campus rules, they argued, it should be banned. For those who were on O’Keefe’s side, the video highlighted the absurdity of the university’s position—anyone could ultimately claim offense to anything.
After graduating college in 2006, O’Keefe went to work for the Leadership Institute, where he conducted training programs and on his own time pursued more stings. Staunchly opposed to abortion, O’Keefe trained his sights on workers at Planned Parenthood, and ran afoul of the Institute’s rules—as a tax-exempt nonprofit, it has to avoid trying to influence legislation taking positions on controversial issues. O’Keefe was given an ultimatum: quit the stings or quit the Institute. He chose the latter.
Not long after, O’Keefe took on ACORN in 2009 with his friend and fellow-conservative activist, Hannah Giles, who was then just 20 years old. She came to him with the idea to pose as a prostitute, and in several videos they ask low-level workers how to start a brothel that would employ underage hookers. The sting remains O’Keefe’s most impactful to date. The videos were featured on the website of Andrew Breitbart, the conservative attack dog who for a while was O’Keefe’s mentor, and were viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
ACORN had been in the crosshairs of the Republican Party for years—its demographic skewed Democrat—but it had never been the bogeyman it was made out to be. In an essay that accompanied the videos, entitled “Chaos for Glory,” O’Keefe, then 25, erroneously claimed that the organization controlled elections and received “billions in tax money.” In fact, almost all its funds came from private donations, which dried up less than a year after the videos’ release.
On the day ACORN closed its doors forever—April 1, 2010—the California attorney general, which investigated ACORN following the release of the videos, issued its findings. The conclusion was damning: “The video releases were heavily edited to feature only the worst or most inappropriate statements of the various ACORN employees and to omit some of the most salient statements by O’Keefe and Giles.”
Over the next two years, O’Keefe became mired in controversy. He was arrested in New Orleans and received three years probation for entering Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu’s office under false pretenses. In his 2013 memoir, Breakthrough, O’Keefe recounts the brief period he spent in jail. “A nightmare day in windowless cages had shrunk my will to nothing,” he writes. “Plus, I had a plane to catch. I was supposed to go skiing at Tahoe.”
The NPR sting in 2011 marked O’Keefe’s comeback. It was a coup to prove bias in the media, but he was again accused of selective editing. Incensed, he encouraged people to watch the raw footage—he always releases the raw footage—and decide for themselves. To his great surprise, he was condemned by Scott Baker, the editor-in-chief of The Blaze, Glenn Beck’s website. He stated that O’Keefe uses “editing tactics that seem designed to intentionally lie or mislead about the material being presented.”
Since then, he’s gone after Medicaid, Obamacare and voter ID laws, but he continues to be dogged by accusations of dishonesty and bad faith, which to him is a grave injustice. He likes to point to David Corn, Mother Jones’ Washington chief, as a genuine example of media hypocrisy. Corn won a prestigious award in 2012 for releasing the infamous Mitt Romney “47 percent” video. “Why is that acceptable?” O’Keefe asks, wondering how that clip was any more ethical than his own work.
The day before the Chris Talbot sting, O’Keefe is scheduled to speak at a conference on energy policy sponsored by the Gatestone Institute, a conservative think-tank based in New York. Several dozen attendees sit at round tables in a small banquet hall off the main dining room, all of them dressed in Capitol Hill drab. O’Keefe prepares his PowerPoint presentation while an Irish documentary filmmaker finishes a pro-fracking talk with the ultimate kicker: “Environmentalists are destroying the dreams of poor people!”
A middle-aged woman then takes the microphone and introduces O’Keefe, calling him “great” and “completely reckless.” The excitement in the room swells. Most people here appear to be over the age of 50, and in this milieu, he’s the closest thing to a rock star.
O’Keefe, dressed in a snug navy blue suit, waits for the noise to die down before launching into a pitch for Project Veritas and its work. He proudly plays a ringing endorsement from Rush Limbaugh: “James O’Keefe, maybe a good description, a good analogy,” he says, “would be to compare him to the special forces of the conservative movement, infiltrating enemy lines and becoming amongst them, and getting them on video tape being who they are.”
O’Keefe is a confident, if not occasionally strident, speaker who remains poised and articulate—the fruits of his theater background. Turning to his latest project, he explains the concept of the investigation and introduces a video featuring documentary filmmaker Josh Tickell, who directed Fuel, a film about finding alternative energy solutions to oil.
There are phone conversations and a meeting at the Beverly Hills Hotel—Tickell does, in fact, want to make an anti-fracking movie. Muhammad agrees to provide him with $4.5 million, and Tickell agrees to keep his name out of the production credits, understanding that Muhammad cares only about his “bottom line.” When Tickell says reassuringly, “We have no moral issue,” the audience bursts out laughing.
Tickell even offers to bring on board environmentally conscious celebrities, including his friends Mariel Hemingway and Ed Begley Jr. O’Keefe’s eyes light up and he cuts to a drinks meeting where Begley and Hemingway appear to happily accept Muhammad’s terms for seed money. The audience applauds and cracks up with delight—the video proves Hollywood’s plot against America.
O’Keefe tells the audience they’ve now witnessed the power of his investigations firsthand. “We’re about to drop a bombshell on Hollywood,” he reminds them before getting to the point. “This is one of the best places to donate your money to—Project Veritas. And we are tax-exempt, so if you have any questions about that, let me know.”
After the event concludes, there is a rush to get face time with O’Keefe. A tan woman in a blue leather jacket looks at him longingly. I stand next to Austin, who does not give me his last name. He’s friendly, short and a natural schmoozer. “I’m, like, James’ body man,” he says. “Fundraising guy—whatever you want to call it.” He’s responsible for passing out copies of O’Keefe’s memoir, in addition to collecting business cards.
An older woman with swimming blue eyes wants O’Keefe to investigate health care consultants. “I’m interested,” he says. “I just wish I could clone myself.”
She looks at him sympathetically. “You can only save the world one piece at a time.”
At another point, a bald man asks O’Keefe if the mainstream media pays attention to his work.
“Nobody will ever talk about what I show,” O’Keefe says. “Because to talk about what I show is to lend credibility to me. And people hate me too much to want to give credibility to me, right?” O’Keefe starts to get himself worked up. “For the most part, every time I break a story, I’m operating with a negative handicap times a hundred.”
The bald man seems confused.
“On Saturday they were getting drunk at the White House correspondents dinner,” O’Keefe informs him. “They were cocktailing with those in power!”
By the time the conversation ends, the room has cleared out—it’s time to leave. Walking toward the exit, O’Keefe seems to relax. He’s done tending to his fans.
As we make our way through the opulent main dining room, O’Keefe makes it clear that he’s familiar with the place.
“Larry King was eating here,” he says.
Adds Austin, “James had a better seat than Larry King.”
Toward the end of May, O’Keefe and his team travel to the Cannes Film Festival to debut the Josh Tickell video. “We wanted to go to the belly of the beast, and that was where all the Hollywood people were congregated,” he says. Dressed in a slim-fitting suit and midnight blue tie, O’Keefe showed the footage to a room of about a dozen people at the Majestic Hotel, very near the festival but still down the street. When no one was around, he posed for a snapshot on the red carpet.
On May 20, the video goes live on the Internet, embedded in a story by the Hollywood Reporter. Tickell releases his own video in response. He admits he was “royally punked,” but makes clear that, regardless of what happened, he already had plans to make an anti-fracking film, and when they entered into an agreement with Beacon, it was only because they retained full creative control over the movie. “We thought to ourselves, oh, the irony,” Tickell says. “We’ll use the funding from an oil company to make a film that promotes green energy.” Hemingway and Begley, for their parts, maintain they didn’t agree to anything.
Two days later, the story takes a surprising twist. Toward the end of O’Keefe’s first video, he shows a snippet of a phone call with Josh Fox, the filmmaker who directed the anti-fracking documentary Gasland. To the viewer, it appears he’s been punked, too. But as it turns out, Fox was onto the sting from the beginning, when he was first contacted in December. In an essay written for The Daily Beast, he revealed that he’d been recording O’Keefe’s people the entire time. “We have them caught in total deception,” Fox says, referring to how O’Keefe cut out Fox’s refusal to cover up the source of the seed money. Then he lambasts the Hollywood Reporter for carrying the video in the first place.
That same day, I receive a call from O’Keefe, who is on his way back from the airport. He’s irate about The Daily Beast article. “The machine is trying to destroy me,” he says. “It’s almost fascist how [Josh] Fox could get angry at the Hollywood Reporter for running this story. That’s fascism. This,” he points out, “is the most important thing in your story.”
Project Veritas finally releases the Chris Talbot video two weeks later. O’Keefe had seemed almost giddy about the Talbot interview that afternoon in SoHo, and promised me I had “quite a scoop.” But when I watch the edited version of the video, there seems little to get excited—or angry—about.
Talbot appears to be doing his job, cautiously vetting Muhammad bin Rashidi and Steve Sanchton. Not only does he not agree to anything, but he also advocates for transparency, rather than covering up the money trail. O’Keefe himself appears at the end of the video, lambasting Josh Fox in an odd editorial addressed directly to the camera. “Are you a progressive or a fascist?” he asks.
The question almost perfectly characterizes O’Keefe: In his world, everyone outside of his orbit is a potential threat. It’s a difficult place to live. He’s fighting the masses in a quixotic battle, chiding them for not recognizing his great virtue while begging them to recognize his great talent. There’s no place for fun, and human connections are distorted. By the time the video ends, it’s hard not feel sorry for the guy.
A few days earlier, I meet O’Keefe at a Mexican restaurant near his office in Westchester County, New York. (“I don’t want you in my office,” he told me beforehand.) Poking at a steak, he says, “I’m almost expecting a hit piece at this point. Here’s the problem—there’s two scenarios: Number one, you’re fair and everyone hates you. Cause I’m not asking you to give me the benefit of the doubt. I’m only asking you to be fair, and everyone will hate you for being fair—I just want you to know that. All of your friends will hate you.” As it happens, he never offers a second scenario.
Later on, I ask O’Keefe about how he views his current work.
“We can change everything,” he says. “I really [believe that].”
A copy of his book rests on the table. Unprompted, he takes a pen and autographs the inside cover. As he hands it over, a slightly embarrassed smile spread across his face. I check the inscription. “Veritas!” it reads, the Latin term for truth.