Project Veritas says Justice Dept. secretly seized its emails
In a court filing, the conservative group chastised prosecutors for attempting to divert attention away from the investigation into how it obtained Ashley Biden's journal.
The conservative group Project Veritas said the Justice Department began surreptitiously seizing a trove of internal correspondence in late 2020, just weeks after discovering that the group had received a copy of President Biden's daughter's journal.
In a court filing, a lawyer for Project Veritas criticized the Justice Department's activities, which included previously unknown subpoenas, search warrants, and court production orders, as well as gag restrictions put on Microsoft, whose servers hosted the group's communications.
The revelation emphasized the Justice Department's investigation into how Project Veritas obtained a diary kept by Ashley Biden, the President's daughter, and other items she had hidden at a Florida residence in the last weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign.
It also emphasized how the Justice Department has resisted demands from the conservative group — which regularly conducts sting operations and ambush interviews against news organizations and liberal groups, as well as targeting perceived political opponents — to be treated as a news organization entitled to First Amendment protections.
The Justice Department obtaining journalists' private correspondence is extremely unusual, as federal prosecutors are meant to follow strict procedures to ensure they do not violate First Amendment rights.
Project Veritas is not entitled to First Amendment
Since the inquiry was revealed last autumn, federal prosecutors have consistently stated that Project Veritas is not entitled to First Amendment protections because they have evidence that the group may have committed a felony in obtaining Ashley's items.
However, Project Veritas said in a Tuesday filing that prosecutors had failed to be honest with a federal judge about the scope of their investigation by failing to disclose the secret subpoenas and warrants.
“This is a fundamental, intolerable abridgment of the First Amendment by the Department of Justice,” James O’Keefe, the group’s founder and leader, said in a video.
In its court petition, Project Veritas requested that a federal judge intervenes to prevent the Justice Department from using materials collected from Microsoft in the investigation. According to the group, federal prosecutors got "voluminous materials" from Microsoft for eight of its workers, including Mr. O'Keefe, including the contents of emails in several cases.
The group revealed that Uber had informed two of its operatives who are being investigated - Spencer Meads and Eric Cochran - that it had handed over information from their accounts in March of last year in response to demands from the government.
What did Microsoft have to say?
Microsoft said in response to questions about the matter it had initially challenged the government’s demands for Project Veritas’s information, but the company declined to describe what that entailed.
“We’ve believed for a long time that secrecy should be the exception and used only when truly necessary,” said Frank X. Shaw, Microsoft Spokesperson, “We always push back when the government is seeking the data of an enterprise customer under a secrecy order and always tell the customer as soon as we’re legally able.”
According to a person with intimate knowledge of the situation, Microsoft resisted the Justice Department's subpoenas and warrants when they were issued on the corporation in late 2020 and early 2021. However, the government refused to withdraw its requests, and Microsoft turned over the information sought by prosecutors, according to the individual.
Because of gag orders that had been imposed, Microsoft was barred from telling Project Veritas about the requests, the person said.
Shortly after the existence of the investigation was revealed publicly last fall, Microsoft asked the Justice Department whether it could tell Project Veritas about the requests, the person said. The department refused to lift the gag orders, the person said.
In response, Microsoft developed a lawsuit against the Justice Department in an attempt to lift the gag orders and informed department officials it was ready to submit it. Soon after, the agency petitioned the court to have the gag orders lifted.
According to the source, Microsoft informed Project Veritas about the warrants and subpoenas around a week ago.
Project Veritas paid $40,000 to a guy and a woman from Florida who claimed to have stolen Ashley Biden's journal from a place where she had been staying till a few months before. Project Veritas also had possession of additional artifacts left at the house by Ashley Biden, and the investigation is focused on whether the group played a role in the removal of those items.
Project Veritas has denied any wrongdoing and stated that Ashley Biden's possessions were left behind. The diary was never published by the group.
Search warrants used in searches last autumn on the houses of O'Keefe and two other Project Veritas operatives revealed that the Justice Department was looking into a conspiracy to transport stolen property as well as possession of stolen goods, among other things.
In response to the searches, a federal judge appointed a special master to review what evidence federal prosecutors might take from the dozens of cellphones and electronic devices collected by the authorities, at the suggestion of Project Veritas.