Inside the James O’Keefe ouster at Project Veritas

Why did the board force out their founder?

james o'keefe project veritas
(Art by Rhonald Blommenstijn)
Text Size
Line Spacing

The old adage goes that there are two sides to every story, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There doesn’t seem to be a better way to describe the recent turmoil at Project Veritas, the conservative journalism organization known for its undercover sting operations. Project Veritas’s founder and CEO James O’Keefe resigned from his post a little over a week ago after the non-profit’s board of directors placed him on unpaid leave pending an investigation for alleged financial malfeasance and abuse of staff.

News of O’Keefe’s departure shocked the conservative media world, and Project…

The old adage goes that there are two sides to every story, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There doesn’t seem to be a better way to describe the recent turmoil at Project Veritas, the conservative journalism organization known for its undercover sting operations. Project Veritas’s founder and CEO James O’Keefe resigned from his post a little over a week ago after the non-profit’s board of directors placed him on unpaid leave pending an investigation for alleged financial malfeasance and abuse of staff.

News of O’Keefe’s departure shocked the conservative media world, and Project Veritas’s board was pummeled with allegations that they had executed a coup after being corrupted with money from Pfizer (PV’s last big sting exposed Pfizer for allegedly participating in directed evolution Covid-19 research). The board was also accused of being infiltrated by closeted liberals, or that they were taking out pro-Trump MAGA activists on behalf of Florida governor Ron DeSantis.

After hours of conversations with nearly a dozen Project Veritas-world insiders, the explanation for the ousting of O’Keefe seems far simpler than any of the conspiracies. O’Keefe and the Project Veritas board, at the most basic level, couldn’t coexist anymore.

On Tuesday January 31, O’Keefe and Project Veritas board members and officers clashed in a meeting about the organization’s fundraising methods. O’Keefe supposedly did not appreciate being asked to dial back his rather brash approach to asking donors for money — and lashed out at the rest of PV’s leadership. Sources say there was a series of other dust-ups between O’Keefe, leadership and staff over the next couple of days. The rout ultimately escalated to O’Keefe firing Project Veritas’s chief strategy officer Barry Hinckley and chief financial officer Tom O’Hara.

The board says O’Keefe did not have the authority to fire those officers. The Spectator reviewed a copy of Project Veritas’s bylaws. The bylaws say, “Unless otherwise specified by the Board of Directors, each officer shall be elected or appointed to hold office until the annual meeting of the Board of Directors next following his election or appointment… Any officer elected or appointed by the Board of Directors may be removed by the Board of Directors with or without cause.”

The board held an emergency meeting and reinstated the officers. O’Keefe was placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation, which the board says is standard procedure after the CEO is accused of violating organizational bylaws.

Sources close to Project Veritas tell The Spectator that the CFO’s firing raised concerns that O’Keefe may have been trying to cover up financial misdeeds. Meanwhile, the board was speaking to staff members about O’Keefe’s alleged mistreatment of employees. Reports say fourteen staff members were interviewed by the board as part of the investigation; it’s unclear how many of these employees went to the board of their own volition, and how many were approached by the board.

Rather than wait out the investigation, which was dismissed as a fishing expedition, O’Keefe demanded the full resignation of the board. When they declined, he resigned from Project Veritas. In a forty-five-minute farewell speech from the company’s headquarters that, in true PV style, was covertly filmed and leaked to the media, O’Keefe described the inception of the organization, thanked his supporters, questioned the motives of the board — and denied any wrongdoing.

The board responded by reiterating its fiduciary duty to shareholders to investigate and released a statement with specific allegations of misconduct: chartering private jets for personal travel under the guise of meeting with donors, being reimbursed for a deposit on a wedding venue, dropping $150,000 on black cars over a period of eighteen months and stealing a pregnant woman’s sandwich.

Complicating the he-said-she-said nature of many of the complaints is the fact that practically every Project Veritas employee over the past ten years was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to work for the company — hence why all of the individuals who spoke to The Spectator asked to remain anonymous.

Our reporting ultimately suggests that neither the board nor O’Keefe were entirely forthcoming about all of the allegations.

For example, O’Keefe said in his farewell address that the board’s claim that he was reimbursed for a down payment on his wedding venue was bogus. It appears he was correct, but not for the reason he gave.

“I’m not married. I’ve never been married,” he said. “The truth of the expense was that it was a payment for our annual PV Christmas party at the Highland Country Club in December of 2021.”

Multiple individuals familiar with the Highlands Country Club expense say it was originally supposed to be a down payment for O’Keefe’s wedding. O’Keefe was engaged at the time and he and his fiancée had sent out save-the-dates for the event. However, the wedding was called off. Concerned he would lose the $12,557.06 deposit on the venue, O’Keefe suggested instead using the country club for Project Veritas’s annual Christmas party. The organization agreed.

One source even suggested O’Keefe had saved the organization money by agreeing to repurpose his former wedding venue, noting that the PV Christmas party the following year was far more costly than the 2021 event at Highlands Country Club.

Meanwhile, members of O’Keefe’s inner circle over the years scoffed at the notion that he did not understand the board’s concerns about his near-constant use of “black cars” while on company business. “Black cars” is a reference to the Uber Black service or private town cars, which are typically roomier, more convenient, aesthetically superior — and pricier.

O’Keefe was apparently warned about his spending on travel on numerous occasions over the years, including the use of “black cars,” private planes and top-dollar hotel suites. It’s not atypical for an organization’s top fundraiser to travel in style when meeting with high-level donors — and O’Keefe’s allies argue that his packed travel and work schedule certainly called for well-appointed accommodations.

However, multiple individuals with involvement spanning the existence of Project Veritas said that O’Keefe’s imprudent spending on travel extended well beyond donor-related business, including sending limousines and expensive SUVs to pick up friends for lunch meetings, flying out girlfriends on private planes and even convincing employees to purchase gas for his boat so they could brush it off as a travel expense and get reimbursed by the organization. O’Keefe allegedly dropped significant money traveling with large “entourages” to public events and conferences, as well as putting together music videos and dance events (much has been written about O’Keefe’s childhood dream of being a musical performer).

The day of the board’s emergency meeting, a group of employees presented an internal memo to the board detailing what they believed was a toxic work environment wrought by their former CEO. The employees, who signed their names but did not indicate who wrote each individual account, said that O’Keefe was a “power-drunk tyrant” who had spit in a staffer’s face, stole a pregnant woman’s sandwich, “verbally attacked” employees who were deemed insufficiently loyal to him and subjected staff to lie detector tests to suss out leakers. People close to O’Keefe, however, don’t put much stock in the memo. They suggest that employees were cajoled into signing the letter by the board — and also note that while a third of employees celebrated O’Keefe’s departure, just as many were furious that the board ousted him.

Separately, three former Project Veritas employees described a similar workplace as outlined in the internal memo to The Spectator. They independently referred to O’Keefe as “abusive” and “sociopathic” and were troubled that O’Keefe had dismissed staff concerns as merely a product of him being too busy or not a “compassionate” enough boss. They asserted that O’Keefe was allergic to dissenting opinions and would manipulate staff to freeze out anyone who dared question him on moral or legal issues.

In one alleged incident that was reported to the board, staff claimed O’Keefe was furious that his assistant got pregnant and thus had to take time off work and subsequently warned other women in the office that they better not follow suit. Another woman was allegedly forced back to work immediately following a miscarriage.

That alleged event was one of many that sources said were indicative of O’Keefe’s “weird” behavior with women, including discussing with colleagues how he believes he will sleep with new female hires, sharing a hotel room with a female employee on at least one occasion and asking women to perform menial personal assistant-type tasks, such as picking up his dry cleaning or groceries and delivering them to his home.

A source close to O’Keefe chalked up most of the complaints to misunderstandings or personality differences. Some employees, the source noted, loved the demanding atmosphere and brushed off unintended offenses. A former employee told The Spectator that while they personally couldn’t work for O’Keefe, with the benefit of hindsight they felt the allegations of abuse were overblown. Project Veritas’s high level of staff turnover — approximately 140 employees in the past five years — is also not that abnormal for a non-corporate media organization.

Overall, staff at the company seem split in their attitudes toward O’Keefe’s departure. Some are beyond relieved to see O’Keefe finally booted. Some still love and respect O’Keefe, but worry that his alleged malfeasance could harm Project Veritas’s mission, particularly given the organization’s focus on rooting out corruption and bad behavior. Others believe the board is not acting in good faith and merely seized on a convenient opportunity — O’Keefe’s firing of Hinckley and O’Hara — to oust the one person standing in the way of complete control of Project Veritas.

The prevailing concern is for the future of the organization. How does Project Veritas retain donors and respect in the conservative community without its much admired founder?

Project Veritas is hemorrhaging followers on social media — and several high-profile donors have said publicly that they will no longer give money to the organization. Conservative activists who are close to Project Veritas said the board probably wrongheadedly believed that they’d be viewed as the saviors of the organization, rescuing Project Veritas from a loose cannon CEO that threatened its non-profit status. Instead, furious conservatives have scrutinized their motivations and publicly stood with O’Keefe.

O’Keefe is Project Veritas, after all — and he’s been the same person for over a decade. The board, meanwhile, didn’t take real action against O’Keefe’s alleged malfeasance until he fired two of their allies. Perhaps the only question that matters now is: can you “save” an organization by destroying it first?

Correction: Board minutes show O’Keefe was placed on unpaid leave, not paid leave as the article originally stated.