One lawsuit described a work atmosphere of drinking, drug use and sexual harassment. Another accused the group of failing to pay overtime.
By Colin Moynihan
Published May 9, 2023
Updated May 10, 2023, 12:16 a.m. ET
Project Veritas, a conservative group known for using covert recordings to embarrass its political opponents, has agreed to settle two federal lawsuits that accused it of underpaying employees and having a “highly sexualized” work atmosphere.
The settlement of the labor suit, which accused Project Veritas of failing to pay overtime, was approved on Monday by a judge in White Plains, N.Y., near where the group is based. According to court papers, Project Veritas agreed to pay $270,000 to resolve the claim, with $15,000 to be paid by a human resources and payroll company that worked with the organization. Just over $213,000 will be divided among six former employees and the remainder will go to legal fees.
A sexual harassment suit filed at the same time as the labor suit, on behalf of a former Project Veritas employee, Antonietta Zappier, was “voluntarily dismissed,” according to a court document dated Tuesday. Her lawyer, Arthur Z. Schwartz, said the parties had reached an “amicable settlement” but that its terms were confidential.
When publicizing its secret recordings, Project Veritas has typically presented itself as bringing to light information that influential figures and institutions would prefer to keep hidden. The two lawsuits, filed last summer, could be seen as turning the tables, offering an insider’s view of an organization that has had powerful political allies and donors.
The Zappier suit said that drug use was “rampant” within the group and that supervisors were sexually involved with subordinates. It also said a corporate apartment the organization kept was used like a “frat house” for drinking, sex and parties.
Both suits were filed by Mr. Schwartz, a former general counsel for Acorn, a community organizing group that dissolved in 2010 after a sting operation carried out in part by James O’Keefe, Project Veritas’s founder. Mr. O’Keefe left the group earlier this year during an uproar among employees that included complaints about his management and spending.
In a letter to the judge overseeing the labor case, Mr. Schwartz described Project Veritas as being in turmoil, saying that Mr. O’Keefe had been its principal fund-raiser and that it had lost tens of thousands of social media followers after his departure.
“Project Veritas thrived for years by exploiting young videographers and film editors,” Mr. Schwartz wrote in an emailed statement, adding that the group’s leaders knew that was unlawful.
Justin T. Kelton, a lawyer for Project Veritas, said in a statement that with regard to the labor case, his clients had acted legally and appropriately and continued to deny the allegations.
“Ultimately, our clients’ strong defenses to these claims led to this quick resolution,” he wrote. “They are happy to be moving forward.”
Mr. Kelton declined to comment on the sexual harassment case brought by Ms. Zappier. Christopher Clarke and Gerard Misk, lawyers who represented Michael Spadone, described in Ms. Zappier’s suit as a Project Veritas “field director,” also declined to comment. So did Mr. Schwartz. Mr. O’Keefe did not comment on the settlements when asked about them.
Ms. Zappier’s lawsuit came two months after Project Veritas filed a lawsuit against her and her husband, Vincent Zappier. The group accused her of breaching the terms of a separation agreement, and her husband of harassing its employees. Mr. Schwartz said that lawsuit had been withdrawn. A lawyer for Project Veritas declined to comment.
Other legal issues remain for Project Veritas. Its defamation suit against The New York Times is continuing. And the Justice Department is investigating how Project Veritas acquired a diary kept by Ashley Biden, President Biden’s daughter, before the 2020 election. Mr. O’Keefe’s home was searched by F.B.I. agents in 2021 as part of that inquiry.
Although Project Veritas describes its employees as journalists, its operations often diverge from standard journalistic practice, with operatives masking their identities or creating bogus ones. Since its founding more than a decade ago, Project Veritas has appeared to cultivate a leading role in the nation’s culture wars and to relish rattling its targets.
The lawsuit by Ms. Zappier, who worked as an administrative assistant from September 2019 to March 2022, contained details that could have similarly riled her onetime employer.
The central claim was that Ms. Zappier had been harassed and assaulted by Mr. Spadone, whom she accused of groping and kissing her in December 2021. But it also included the names of employees and the identities of operatives, information that the group has taken care to shield.
Ms. Zappier’s suit said she had dealt with Mr. O’Keefe’s parking tickets and laundry and signed his name on thousands of books for donors who had contributed a minimum of $200 for autographed copies.
The suit also said that Mr. O’Keefe wanted young female operatives he referred to as “pretty young things” to go on undercover dates, and that he mandated that operatives review copies of the book and movie “Red Sparrow,” about a Russian intelligence agent trained in “sexpionage.”
Members of Project Veritas at a conservative convention last year. Since its founding more than a decade ago, the group has appeared to cultivate a leading role in the nation’s culture wars. Photo Credit Rebecca Noble for The New York Times