James O'Keefe, the right-wing activist famous for his undercover and ethically questionable sting operations on prominent liberal organizations, has settled a lawsuit filed against him for $100,000 from a former ACORN employee. O'Keefe's misleading ACORN videos led to the collapse of the organization, which was hugely successful in registering minority and low income voters. Less well known is how the American Legislative Exchange Council helped in the larger campaign to take down ACORN.
O'Keefe is paying the $100,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by Juan Carlos Vera, a former employee of ACORN (which stands for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). The lawsuit alleged that O'Keefe and his associate filmed Vera in the San Diego ACORN offices without his consent, a violation of California law, and portrayed him untruthfully. The video was later heavily edited and published on conservative mega-blog Breitbart.com, making it appear that Vera had conspired with O'Keefe to smuggle underage girls across the Mexican border, when in fact Vera had immediately contacted the police after O'Keefe left his office.
ACORN Targeted after Successful Voter Registration Drives
ACORN, a grassroots organization that worked on raising the minimum wage, ending predatory lending and access to affordable housing, was a target of O'Keefe's so-called "investigative journalism" in large part because it was also highly effective at registering members of poor and minority communities to vote -- voters unlikely to embrace the GOP agenda. ACORN collected 1.3 million voter registration forms in 21 states prior to the 2008 election. A handful of irregularities with voter registration led to charges of election-stealing voter fraud. John McCain, for instance, accused ACORN of "massive voter fraud... that would destroy the fabric of democracy" -- a statement that factcheck.org called "breathtakingly inaccurate."
The 2009 ACORN videos helped O'Keefe rise to fame (or perhaps infamy), and was part of a coordinated right-wing assault that eventually resulted in Congressional Republicans introducing legislation to cut funding for the organization and ACORN going bankrupt. Despite being vindicated by attorneys general in several states, and a report from the Government Accountability Office finding that ACORN did not misuse any federal money, Republicans were successful in cutting off an important funding stream and the organization closed its doors in 2010.
ACORN has continued to be a useful bogeyman of the right. In 2013, Republicans have written into various budget bills that no federal funds can go to the organization -- despite the fact that it no longer exists. In 2012, 49 percent of Republican voters said they believed ACORN stole the presidential election.
ALEC Joined Right-Wing Effort to Destroy ACORN
O'Keefe's videos were published in 2009, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) joined the right-wing spin machine in attacking ACORN, featuring an initiative entitled "Cracking ACORN" on its website.
It was around this time that ALEC featured a story titled "Preventing Election Fraud" on the cover of its Inside ALEC magazine, and ALEC corporate lobbyists and politicians voted to adopt "model" voter ID legislation.
Although voter ID restrictions had been proposed in previous years, the bills only gained traction after ALEC adopted voter ID as a model -- and ALEC only did so after the election of the nation's first African-American president with record turnout from students and people of color. Hyping the unfounded "voter fraud" accusations promoted by O'Keefe and perpetuated by right-wing hucksters like Hans von Spakovsky provided a pretext for passing the bills.
In the years after ALEC adopted voter ID as a model, similar bills were introduced in a majority of states and passed in eight. According to a Brennan Center study, the laws threatened to disenfranchise around five million voters nationwide, many of whom are low-income.
O'Keefe: "This Is the Cost of Exposing the Truth"
In a statement posted by his organization, Project Veritas, O'Keefe calls the lawsuit "meritless" and chalks the settlement up to the cost of good journalism, rather than the cost of calculated deception.
"Sadly, this is the cost of exposing the truth," he laments. The settlement agreement, though, states "O'Keefe regrets any pain suffered by Vera or his family."
Some have noted that the $100,000 is a full $35,000 more than Andrew Breitbart paid O'Keefe for the rights to his ACORN videos, which might suggest that paying a substantial settlement was preferable to publicly losing a court case.
It also appears that this story is not over. O'Keefe has announced that he will be releasing a book in June of 2013 which will include "never-heard before details" about the situation.
While this settlement will help a former ACORN employee who was falsely portrayed as aiding human trafficking, it does nothing for the five million who are likely to be disenfranchised as a result of ALEC-inspired voter ID laws -- and who could likely use a grassroots voter registration drive like the ones ACORN used to do.
CMD's Brendan Fischer contributed to this article.