The case was strange from the beginning. In 2017, the American Federation of Teachers filed a lawsuit against a controversial conservative organization, accusing it of planting a spy within the union to secretly and illegally record conversations and steal documents.
That spy, the union said, secured a job as an intern and was given access to “a substantial amount of confidential and proprietary information,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed against the conservative group, Project Veritas, and Marisa Jorge, the alleged spy.
The case got more interesting over the weekend, when the New York Times — citing interviews and documents — reported that Erik Prince, the brother of Betsy DeVos, was behind the recruitment of the British spy who helped run the operation. DeVos, the U.S. secretary of education, is a West Michigan native who has been influential in promoting school choice policies in Michigan and beyond.
The newspaper described it as one of multiple instances in which Prince had recruited former American and British spies for operations that included “infiltrating Democratic congressional campaigns, labor organizations and other groups considered hostile to the Trump agenda.”
This is what the Times story said about the spy operation against the union:
“One of the former spies, an ex-MI6 officer named Richard Seddon, helped run a 2017 operation to copy files and record conversations in a Michigan office of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teachers’ unions in the nation. Mr. Seddon directed an undercover operative to secretly tape the union’s local leaders and try to gather information that could be made public to damage the organization, documents show.”
David Hecker, the president of the AFT-Michigan, declined to comment this weekend.
But Randi Weingarten, the president of the national American Federation of Teachers, of which the Michigan union is an affiliate, was vocal on social media.
.@BetsyDeVosED brother #ErikPrince now found part of #projectveritas attempt to spy & steal @aftmichigan documents. They didn’t succeed in their attempt to hurt our union but note what the right wing will do to try to eliminate workers’ voice. https://t.co/E2UHyOIgNv— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) March 7, 2020
“@BetsyDeVosED brother #ErikPrince now found part of #projectveritas attempt to spy & steal @aftmichigan documents. They didn’t succeed in their attempt to hurt our union but note what the right wing will do to try to eliminate workers’ voice,” Weingarten wrote on Twitter.
Let’s be clear who the wrongdoer is here: Project Veritas used a fake intern to lie her way into our @AFTMichigan office, to steal documents and to spy — and they got caught. We’re just trying to hold them accountable for this industrial espionage. https://t.co/An8Cc65eGf— Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten) March 7, 2020
Later, she said: “Let’s be clear who the wrongdoer is here: Project Veritas used a fake intern to lie her way into our @AFTMichigan office, to steal documents and to spy — and they got caught. We’re just trying to hold them accountable for this industrial espionage.”
She noted Sunday that Project Veritas has subpoenaed her to sit for a deposition, the latest action in the history of the lawsuit. The union has filed a motion to limit the subject matter of the deposition to the facts underlying the current claims and defenses in the lawsuit.
James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, had this to say on Twitter, in response to the New York Times story:
Retracto the Correction Alpaca is going to be very busy in the coming days. May he continue to keep the Fourth Estate honest.— James O'Keefe (@JamesOKeefeIII) March 7, 2020
We are a proud independent news organization. No one tells @Project_Veritas who or what to investigate. We are bound by no “commercial imperative.” pic.twitter.com/uTXTZtcRNn
“We are a proud independent news organization. No one tells @Project_Veritas who or what to investigate. We are bound by no ‘commercial imperative.’ “
The lawsuit, which seeks $3 million, accuses Project Veritas and Jorge — who is also known as Marissa Perez — of fraudulent misrepresentation, trespassing, eavesdropping, larceny, civil conspiracy, breach of fiduciary duty, unlawful interception of oral communications, and violating the electronic communications privacy act.
The case was originally filed in Wayne County Circuit Court, where a judge issued a temporary restraining order preventing Project Veritas from distributing any information it obtained from the union. Months later, after the case was moved to federal court, a judge revoked that earlier order.
Last year, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel intervened in the case, pushing the federal court to ask the Michigan Supreme Court to resolve a claim by the defendants that Michigan’s eavesdropping law is unconstitutional and vague.
Documents filed in the court case provide a glimpse into how Jorge pulled off the scam. The union offers internships during the summer to people who have an interest in the labor movement or public education. Jorge, who was going by Perez, was recommended to the union by the friend and colleague of an AFT Michigan official. She claimed to be a University of Michigan student pursuing a career in teaching.
Once hired, according to the lawsuit, “she was seen sitting in offices of staff members when those staff members were not in their offices, which we now know she was not authorized to do, using computers which we now know she had not been authorized to use, and seen looking through paper files which we now know she was not authorized to view.”
AFT Michigan staff became suspicious “following several conversations with staff regarding her behavior,” according to the documents.
“AFT Michigan staff had begun to share information about ‘Perez’ including her contradictions about the residence, her reasons for being in the office late at night, her apparent review of files regarding matters to which she had not been assigned, and her habit of carrying a cell phone with her everywhere.”