The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Project Veritas nearly doubled its funding in 2020 while amplifying baseless election fraud claims

The nonprofit, known for hidden-camera videos targeting journalists and liberals, raised $22 million last year

James O'Keefe leads Project Veritas, which presents itself as a news organization and uses confrontational tactics, including hidden cameras and falsified identities, to expose what it sees as liberal bias in the media and wrongdoing by Democrats and their allies. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Two days after the 2020 election, as President Donald Trump raised alarm about mass voter fraud, Project Veritas produced a video it claimed furnished stunning proof.

The organization, which has used deceptive tactics in attempts to expose alleged wrongdoing by journalists, liberals and labor unions, aired accusations from a Pennsylvania postal worker who said his supervisors had tampered with mail-in ballots. The video was cited in right-wing media and by a top Republican lawmaker.

Then the claims fell apart: The worker recanted to federal agents. But as its high-profile investigation was being debunked, Project Veritas was concluding a banner year for fundraising.

The organization nearly doubled its revenue last year, according to a recent public filing. Project Veritas, led by James O’Keefe, raised about $22 million in 2020, compared with $12 million in 2019, the tax filing shows.

O’Keefe earned a salary of $412,000 from the group, whose methods have drawn scrutiny from federal law enforcement. The FBI last month searched two locations associated with Project Veritas as part of an investigation into how a diary reportedly belonging to President Biden’s daughter, Ashley, became public just before the 2020 election. O’Keefe, 37, said his group acquired the diary lawfully and did not publish it because its authenticity could not be confirmed.

The fundraising boom shows how Project Veritas has capitalized on confrontational tactics and baseless claims of election fraud — both increasingly mainstream in the Republican Party. With expanded resources, it’s seeking to press its case in Washington, recently hiring its first lobbyist, an ex-aide to former vice president Mike Pence, to inform lawmakers about its interactions with the FBI, according to a filing.

An attorney for Project Veritas did not respond to a request for comment, but O’Keefe, in a statement reacting to the FBI action, defended his methods as newsgathering and said: “It appears journalism itself may now be on trial.”

This October, a federal judge ruled in an unrelated civil action that Project Veritas could present itself in such a light but that the group’s opponents could characterize it differently — as a “political spying operation.” The judge affirmed that the jury would decide “which characterization it finds most persuasive.”

Because Project Veritas is set up as a 501(c)3 charitable organization, it is exempt from disclosing its donors or paying federal income tax. In return, it is supposed to abstain from campaign activity.

Details of its financing, however, can be glimpsed in separate disclosures by its benefactors. More than a quarter of its revenue last year came from the Bradley Impact Fund, a donor-advised conservative philanthropy based in Milwaukee, according to a tax filing by that group. The fund gave Project Veritas a grant of $6.5 million — Bradley’s largest expenditure last year and far more than it has provided to Project Veritas in all other years since 2012 combined, according to a review of its disclosures.

Christine Czernejewski, a spokeswoman for the Bradley Impact Fund, declined to comment on the Project Veritas grant but wrote in an email that the nonprofit’s principles include “a belief in Constitutional order, free markets, a strong civil society, informed citizens, and donor intent.”

The grant from the Bradley Impact Fund was identified by the watchdog group Documented and confirmed by The Washington Post through public filings.

Beyond the Bradley Impact Fund, it’s not fully clear which other benefactors accounted for the rise in Project Veritas’s revenue. But smaller sums have come from a range of philanthropies.

DonorsTrust, another prominent donor-advised fund that allows its contributors to remain anonymous, gave just over $1 million to the group, according to its 2020 tax filing.

The Gardner Grout Foundation, a Reno-based philanthropy that lists no mission statement or employees on its tax filings, contributed $325,000 last year to Project Veritas, more than three times the amount it gave the year before.

And $15,000 recently flowed into Project Veritas’s coffers from a little-known Arizona-based philanthropy called the Immanuel Charitable Foundation, which also distributed funds in the fiscal year ending September 2020 to groups as disparate as the Midwest Innocence Project, a nonprofit seeking to address wrongful convictions, and True the Vote, a Houston-based group promising to expose election fraud.

In response to a question about whether the fund would continue to support Project Veritas after the FBI searches, a spokesman for DonorsTrust pointed to a statement from Lawson Bader, the group’s president and CEO, saying that donors may back charities “in good standing with and approved by the IRS … If at any point this status is revoked, entities will no longer be eligible for contributions from DonorsTrust or any other donor-advised fund.” The person listed as the Immanuel Charitable Foundation’s president on tax filings did not respond to telephone messages. The Gardner Grout Foundation could not be reached for comment.

O’Keefe, in a deposition taken last year as part of a lawsuit filed by the Michigan branch of the American Federation of Teachers against Project Veritas, said the group’s financing came from “many individuals, some foundations.” He said Project Veritas maintains a mailing list of donors and has purchased email addresses from third-party vendors for the purpose of soliciting donations.

Project Veritas has at times faced regulatory hurdles to fundraising in some states based on alleged misstatements or failure to disclose O’Keefe’s criminal record. In 2017, officials in Florida barred O’Keefe from personally seeking donations in the state because of a 2010 conviction for entering a federal building under false pretenses. O’Keefe pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge after posing as a telephone repairman to gain entry to the office of then-Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).

Despite these setbacks, O’Keefe and his methods have been embraced by Trump and his family. The Trump Foundation gave $20,000 to Project Veritas in 2015, according to tax filings, the same year he embarked on his campaign for president. In a book published in 2018, O’Keefe wrote that Trump had asked him, during a meeting in 2013, if he could “get inside” Columbia University to access President Barack Obama’s college records. Trump, wrote O’Keefe, “suspected Obama had presented himself as a foreign student on application materials.”

Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s eldest son, has repeatedly promoted Project Veritas investigations, at one point writing on Twitter, in response to a user who had called him a liar, “look at project Veritas videos.”

Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington did not respond to questions about the family’s past support for O’Keefe but criticized the FBI for its searches of properties associated with the group.

The Bradley Impact Fund is part of a network of Milwaukee-based conservative nonprofits that has focused on issues similar to those featured in Project Veritas videos. The Bradley Impact Fund is linked — including through a shared address and overlapping leadership — to the better-known Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has served as a key funder of conservative causes in Wisconsin and nationally. It has reported assets of more than $900 million.

In recent years, the Bradley Foundation has given to numerous organizations pressing for voting restrictions and, since last year, backing Trump’s baseless warnings about mass voter fraud. The foundation’s board includes Cleta Mitchell, a prominent Republican attorney involved in unsuccessful efforts to challenge Biden’s win. Mitchell declined to comment.

In a statement contesting a recent New Yorker article — which cast the foundation as “an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules” — its leaders said “Bradley made only $500,000 in grants to groups doing election integrity work” in 2020. Project Veritas, recipient of $6.5 million from the associated Bradley Impact Fund, has for years sought to accuse Democrats of election manipulation.

Project Veritas’s election-related work intensified last year as Trump made baseless claims of fraud the centerpiece of his campaign, and O’Keefe’s group produced what it said was evidence — including the allegations, later recanted, that postal officials had been overheard discussing a plan to backdate mail ballots. The Pennsylvania postal worker whose claims were cited by Project Veritas — and later by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in a statement calling on the Justice Department to investigate — ultimately told U.S. Postal Service investigators that he had not actually overheard such a conversation. Project Veritas says the man was coerced into changing his account.

Some of the groups funded by the Bradley Foundation and the associated Bradley Fund — such as FreedomWorks, a libertarian advocacy group that helped fuel the tea party movement — have amplified findings by Project Veritas. A FreedomWorks spokesman declined to comment.

Another large contribution from the Bradley Impact Fund, a $2.5 million grant, went to the 85 Fund, a conservative nonprofit associated with Leonard Leo, the Trump confidant and stalwart of the Federalist Society. The donor-advised fund, which allows contributors to earmark money for certain causes while remaining anonymous, also gave to the Claremont Institute, the conservative think tank based in Upland, Calif., that employs John C. Eastman, a lawyer and architect of Trump’s failed strategy for overturning the results of the 2020 election.

Shawn Boburg contributed to this report.