Project Veritas has again inserted itself in Utah’s Republican primary — and it should give us all pause, Robert Gehrke writes

The foray by the group, known for secretly recording video of its political enemies, is unexpected and should give Utahns pause.

Project Veritas — the “gotcha” group whose controversial undercover tactics have made it a polarizing and politically charged lightning rod — has struck again.

First, they published secretly recorded video of a junior staffer on Rep. John Curtis’ campaign spouting off about the congressman’s views on abortion and Republican “crazies.”

On Thursday, the group released video of Senate candidate Becky Edwards expressing her opposition to Utah’s law that would ban almost all abortions from the time of conception if the court strikes down Roe v. Wade.

If you haven’t heard of Project Veritas, it is a group founded more than a decade ago by James O’Keefe. Its tactics entail operatives posing in various roles and surreptitiously videotaping people — usually from progressive organizations, political campaigns or media outlets — in unguarded exchanges, then promoting video excerpts, often heavily edited, on social media and conservative news outlets to discredit the targets.

“We are everywhere,” said Mario Balaban, a spokesman for Project Veritas Action.

Maybe next they’ll trick Utah County Attorney David Leavitt into admitting he really is a cannibal.

In the Edwards video, she says she is the only candidate in the Republican Senate primary who has said the court’s anticipated decision overturning Roe v. Wade is anything other than an “answer to prayer” and that she is “deeply concerned” by Utah’s trigger law that would ban abortion after 12 weeks and other states that are more stringent.

In reality, Utah’s abortion trigger law goes much further than Edwards indicated. It would ban abortion from the time an egg implants in the womb except for when there is a verified case of rape or incest, the fetus suffers from a “uniformly lethal” defect, or if the birth would result in the mother’s death or permanent impairment of a major bodily function.

The covert video actually is not significantly different than what Edwards has said elsewhere. In the Senate debate in May, Edwards said she had “not seen any compelling reason to revisit Roe v. Wade.”

In the video targeting the Curtis campaign, an undercover Project Veritas operative posing as a volunteer secretly recorded a conversation with the campaign’s young field director, Daniel Stephens, in which Stephens said Curtis doesn’t like Utah’s trigger law, but won’t say he doesn’t. Stephens said Curtis “stays quiet” about some of his views and the campaign strategy is to keep the congressman out of the district; and that voters are unwilling to research the issues. (The interviewer offers up the word “ignorance”).

Stephens also says in his job he often works with Republican “crazies.”

When O’Keefe confronted Stephens about the recording in a video released Wednesday, Stephens — who said he had admired Project Veritas’ earlier work — said they were taking his words out of context but acknowledged they were “unfortunate” statements. He then called the campaign manager and offered his resignation, which was not immediately accepted.

According to the timestamp on the Stephens video, the conversation lasted between 35 and 40 minutes. Project Veritas released less than two minutes of excerpts. There was no timestamp on the Edwards video.

I asked if they would release the full recording and Balaban said they would not because journalists don’t release full recordings — which often is true, assuming we accept that they are journalists.

But Project Veritas exists in a gray area, using questionable tactics to advance an overwhelmingly partisan agenda.

O’Keefe first became known when he presented himself as a pimp and sought advice on setting up a brothel from the community organizing group ACORN.

He was later charged with a felony but pleaded to a misdemeanor after he recorded associates entering a Louisiana senator’s office posing as telephone repairmen. In 2014, the Utah Department of Commerce rejected Project Veritas’ application for a license to solicit funds in the state after it was determined that O’Keefe failed to mention his conviction on the application. As of Thursday, the group was still not a licensed charity in the state, meaning it is prohibited from soliciting donations in Utah.

Then in 2010, CNN obtained a memo outlining a plan to lure a CNN reporter onto a boat and seduce her and get her to talk about the network’s liberal bias — a scheme O’Keefe said he didn’t plan to follow through on.

And the FBI is continuing to investigate how Project Veritas came into possession of the diary of Ashley Biden, the president’s daughter. The group has said it was given the diary by a tipster but did not publish a story based on the information. O’Keefe has alleged the investigation is intended to silence critics of the president.

But Veritas has a significant reach, with its work frequently amplified by right-wing networks and its hundreds of thousands of conservative social media followers.

And that’s where this poses a significant problem for Curtis: A lot of Republicans never trusted him in the first place.

Curtis was a Democrat — the chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, for that matter — until 2006, a few years before he was elected as Provo Mayor. The suspicion helps to explain why he has not fared well at the GOP convention, which typically is dominated by the most devoted Republicans.

Stephens’ comments will obviously magnify that mistrust.

The Curtis campaign issued a statement defending the congressman’s record, saying he “has been pro-life through-and-through” and that he would welcome the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and enactment of Utah’s trigger law.

They also blamed Curtis’ opponent, Chris Herrod, for orchestrating the stunt. “It’s time for Chris Herrod to stop flying to D.C. to recruit dishonest organizations to come to Utah and tell Utahns how to vote,” the campaign said in a statement. “Stop bringing the swamp to Utah, Mr. Herrod.”

Herrod denied having anything to do with the Project Veritas operation.

“I have never talked to them,” Herrod said, ”but that’s typical John — not to have any facts as to recruiting them. … They blame everyone else for what they do. It’s no secret that John has differing views and tells one group one thing and another group another, but to immediately blame me, I would like to see the evidence.”

This emergence of Project Veritas — using problematic tactics to promote a political agenda, in this instance targeting RINOs — is yet another odd twist in an already-bizarre political primary season and yet another instance of outside groups trying to influence the outcome of Utah elections. And the big questions remain: Why here? Why now?

Balaban said Project Veritas gets involved when they are “made aware that there might be some corruption going on” and the element of surprise works to their advantage.

“To us, it’s great that people don’t know where we are,” Balaban said, “because we could be anywhere.”

Apparently, even in Utah.

Editors Note · This column has been updated to include the new video featuring Becky Edwards.