The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

James O’Keefe is out at Project Veritas after internal power struggle

A bitter management dispute pulled back the curtain on allegations of workplace misconduct and mismanagement of donor money

James O'Keefe at a 2015 news conference at the National Press Club in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
7 min

Project Veritas, the right-wing organization known for its undercover sting operations, has split with James O’Keefe, the group’s founder and chairman, following a bitter management dispute that pulled back the curtain on allegations of workplace misconduct and mismanagement of donor money.

The group’s executive director, Daniel Strack, informed some staff on Monday that O’Keefe had issued an ultimatum demanding that the board of directors resign as a condition for him to stay, according to people familiar with Strack’s account. R.C. Maxwell, a spokesman for Project Veritas, wrote on Twitter that O’Keefe “was removed from his position as CEO by the Project Veritas board.”

Neither Strack nor O’Keefe responded to requests for comment. O’Keefe notified employees of his exit on Monday morning at the organization’s headquarters in Mamaroneck, N.Y., and proceeded to pack up his belongings.

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 exit spells an uncertain future for Project Veritas, a controversial organization closely identified with its 38-year-old founder. The group, formed in 2010, has employed deceptive tactics in attempts to expose alleged wrongdoing by journalists, liberals and labor unions. O’Keefe’s secretly recorded videos, sometimes landing their subjects in hot water, have been shown to be selectively edited, often leaving out key context. Recent stings have been aimed at Pfizer, the pharmaceutical giant behind one of the coronavirus vaccines, though the company has defended its methods.

O’Keefe’s tactics have sometimes put him in legal jeopardy. He pleaded guilty in 2010 to a misdemeanor charge of entering a federal building under false pretenses; agreed in 2013 to pay $100,000 to settle a lawsuit arising from his efforts to target a community organizing group; and in 2021 faced a court-ordered FBI search of his apartment in connection with the alleged theft of a diary belonging to President Biden’s daughter, Ashley Biden.

All the while, O’Keefe gained clout in conservative circles and found common cause with Donald Trump, which boosted fundraising. By 2020, the nonprofit’s annual revenue had broken $20 million, according to public filings. In 2021, the most recent year for which a tax filing is available, Project Veritas paid O’Keefe about $400,000.

But behind the scenes, O’Keefe struggled to manage his growing organization.

His exit follows internal conflict that pitted O’Keefe against two of the group’s executives — Barry Hinckley, the chief strategy officer, and Tom O’Hara, the chief financial officer. Earlier this month, O’Keefe sought to oust Hinckley and O’Hara after they raised concerns about his approach to fundraising and treatment of staff.

“Last night I stood up to a Bully and was fired,” Hinckley wrote to colleagues in a group chat on the messaging app Telegram. “Management by shaming and bullying is never acceptable and it doesn’t belong in the workplace.”

The board, after an emergency meeting, brought back both executives, placed O’Keefe on paid leave and indicated to Project Veritas leadership that it would deliberate over O’Keefe’s fate at the organization. In the meantime, some Project Veritas staff prepared a memo airing grievances against O’Keefe, which his allies strenuously denied.

The 11-page document, which was obtained by The Post, accused O’Keefe of demeaning his employees, mistreating donors and squandering the group’s resources. One person labeled him a “power drunk tyrant.”

Some objected to the use of donor money on highly produced videos featuring O’Keefe. “All the theatre stuff and how that is handled makes me very uneasy,” wrote this person, who went unnamed. “I understand it is rationalized as ‘raising awareness of our brand,’ but the cost of that both in a financial sense as well as personnel and resources, becomes priority over why donors actually give us money, which is to conduct undercover investigations which expose waste fraud and abuse.”

The memo paints a picture of fear and paranoia within the organization. One person recounted an episode in which employees were required to travel to headquarters for questioning by two private investigators over concerns about a “mole” in the office. Another person wrote, “Everyone is operating in fear because James is erratic.”

The alleged instability extended to interactions with donors, according to the memo. O’Keefe is said to have rudely demanded money from benefactors, rebuffed a donor when she asked for a photo with him and arrived late to donor meetings.

The criticism of O’Keefe prompted a backlash among some of his employees and outside allies, who heaped blame on the group’s executives and some of its board members. They singled out Matthew Tyrmand, a right-wing commentator described by O’Keefe’s defenders as the “ringleader” of a “coup” against him. Tyrmand has told associates that people weighing in on internal developments “don’t have a clue” about what’s going on, according to messages reviewed by The Post. He did not respond to requests for comment.

The suggestion of disquietude among donors met a vehement response from a lawyer who claimed to be representing a “large group of significant donors to Project Veritas.” The lawyer, Stephen C. Piepgrass, sent a cease-and-desist letter to the group’s board of directors expressing “grave concerns” about any effort to remove O’Keefe and warning that the board “may already be acting in violation” of charity law.

In addition to Tyrmand, the letter was addressed to four other board members, not including O’Keefe.

O’Keefe asked allies who reached out to him to promote the cease-and-desist letter, according to people in touch with him.

In his speech on Monday morning, O’Keefe said the board rebuffed his offer to apologize to staff for his brusque manner. He read aloud from what he said were board minutes recording that he had been “indefinitely suspended from this organization,” even though Project Veritas publicly maintained that he was on vacation.

O’Keefe also described the terms of what Strack, the group’s executive director, referred to as an ultimatum. O’Keefe said he wrote a letter to the board on Feb. 16 proposing that its members resign by the end of last week “or I’ll be forced to walk away.”

“I was asked to be gone until the 20th; it is now the 20th,” he said. “I asked the board to resign for their conduct, and they did not. So currently I have no job at Project Veritas. I have no position here based on what the board has done.”

Toward the end of his remarks to staff, O’Keefe choked up as he thanked his parents, recalling how he founded Project Veritas, 13 years ago, from his father’s carriage house.

Because it is set up as a nonprofit, Project Veritas is not required to disclose its donors. Details of its financing, however, can be glimpsed in separate disclosures by its benefactors. More than a quarter of its revenue in 2020 came from the Bradley Impact Fund, a donor-advised conservative philanthropy based in Milwaukee, according to a tax filing by that group. Project Veritas sought unsuccessfully in 2017 to plant a false story in The Post about failed Senate candidate Roy Moore. In 2020, it aimed to furnish evidence for Trump’s false claims of voter fraud.