A conservative group that films undercover videos of political opponents targeted a New Mexico teachers union, according to union officials.
Project Veritas, funded by an array of conservative groups with ties to Charles and David Koch and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is known for guerilla-style, heavily edited videos aimed at harming political opponents.
Earlier this year, the group made headlines when a woman associated with it raised false claims of an alleged sexual relationship with Roy Moore, the failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama. The woman’s attempt to set up a Washington Post reporter failed when the paper fact-checked her claims and discovered her ties to Project Veritas.
Ellen Bernstein, President of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, says her union was contacted by someone associated with Project Veritas.
According to Bernstein, she was contacted by a man calling himself Timothy Johnson. The man said his brother, a teacher, was afraid to speak about an incident, but Johnson wanted to reach out for advice himself.
Bernstein said she told the man she could give him only limited advice, but agreed to meet with the brother, who called himself Kurt Kendall (the spelling is not clear).
It was only after the April 11 meeting with the purported teacher that Bernstein realized something seemed unusual.
“I found the person different than any other teacher I’d ever talked to in terms of what he was willing to say,” Bernstein told NM Political Report.
She said he asked, for instance, what would happen “hypothetically” if he had hit a child or what would happen “hypothetically” if he had used a racial slur.
When asked about what Bernstein had alleged, a spokesman for Project Veritas responded with an emailed statement, but didn’t say much.
“We do not comment on ongoing investigations, real or imagined,” Nick Evangelista said.
This isn’t the first time Project Veritas targeted teachers unions.
In March of 2017, the organization released a video on its website that appeared to show a union official in San Francisco telling two Project Veritas staffers he once hit a student and covered it up. The official was placed on leave.
National American Federation of Teachers spokeswoman Oriana Korin said the union had heard of similar incidents in New York, New Jersey and Wisconsin as well. The progressive news outlet Rewire News wrote about the incidents in Ohio.
A union official in Michigan confirmed similar stories in an interview with NM Political Report.
Korin said the incidents were similar in nature.
Hecker said the attempts are solely to try to get union officials to say something bad on tape—or to edit video to make it look like they did.
A suspicious meeting
In New Mexico, Bernstein said it was ATF Staff Representative Simon Cao who first became suspicious.
When he asked the man basic questions, like who the vice-principal is at the school he claimed to teach at, or what his relationship was with the principal, the man couldn’t answer.
After “Kendall” left, Cao searched the website Project Veritas Exposed and identified the man as Christian Hartsock.
The Project Veritas Exposed is a project of the online video series, The Undercurrent. According to The Intercept, The Undercurrent executive producer Lauren Windsor is the driving force behind Project Veritas Exposed. Windsor is also a partner at Democracy Partners, a liberal political consulting firm which was the target of a sting by James O’Keefe III last year. The firm is suing O’Keefe, the activist behind Project Veritas.
It was then that Bernstein realized how unusual the interview was, and she recalled that the man “kept fiddling with something in his lap.”
O’Keefe was charged with illegally entering federal property under false pretences when he entered the offices of then-U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-Louisiana. O’Keefe said he was trying to prove she was ignoring phone calls complaining about the Affordable Care Act.
In some states, though not New Mexico, recording without the permission of both parties is illegal. And it has got them in trouble legally before.
In 2009, Project Veritas released edited videos they said showed fraud with the community organizing group ACORN. As a result of the doctored videos, the federal government shut down contracts with the organization, which aided low-income families, and led to ACORN’s bankruptcy. O’Keefe settled a civil lawsuit with one former employee for $100,000 and an apology.
More recently, according to a 2017 story in The New Yorker, O’Keefe protege Hartsock was allegedly part of the attempted sting against the League of Conservation Voters in California. A letter from the LCV described “an elaborate, six-month-long scheme” according to the magazine.
LCV filed a complaint with California Attorney General Xavier Becerra against Hartsock and two others about the scheme.
Bernstein could only speculate as to why Project Veritas would include an Albuquerque union in its latest string of sting attempts. But she believes it is part of a wider attempt to discredit unions.
“In the grand scheme of things, this is a point in our country’s history where people with a lot of money are trying to get rid of unions that represent people who are working and don’t have much money,” she said.
Bernstein said she felt “very victimized.”
“[When] you hear about people who do things for the wrong reason and you say, ‘Wow, that’s evil,’” she said. “But when evil visits you and then gets on you, it really brings it to light what’s happening right now in this country to take down unions.”