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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

No Proof of ‘Lying’

Sen. Mitch McConnell claims in a TV ad to have “shocking” video evidence from Alison Lundergan Grimes’ “own staff” to prove “Grimes is lying” about her support for coal. He doesn’t.

The ad cites an Oct. 6 article in the Free Beacon about the videos, but the original source is James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas Action Fund. O’Keefe, a conservative activist, surreptitiously videotaped Grimes supporters saying the Democratic candidate doesn’t actually support the coal industry. But none of those featured in the ad is a paid staffer with the Grimes campaign, and all of them are expressing their personal opinions — not revealing campaign strategy.

Genuine support for the coal industry has been a hotly contested issue in the Kentucky Senate race. Both candidates have been outspoken in support of coal, and against Obama administration regulations of it, but both sides have accused the other of simply paying lip service to the issue.

The new ad from McConnell’s campaign suggests it has a smoking gun with comments from Grimes’ “own staff.” The campaign doesn’t.

“Why do radical anti-coal activists support Alison Grimes, even as Grimes claims to support coal? Now we know,” the ad’s narrator says. “Shocking new undercover videos with Grimes’ own staff and donors show Grimes is lying, only praising coal to win an election.”

The ad then cuts to an undercover video of Roz Heise saying, “She’s saying something positive about coal because she wants to be elected.” But Heise, 71, isn’t a Grimes campaign staffer. She’s a volunteer with the Fayette County Democratic Party.

The Project Veritas video also includes another volunteer with the Fayette County Democratic Party, Gina Bess — not featured in the McConnell ad– who says that market forces, more than any EPA regulations, have led to the decline of the coal industry. “But,” she says, “you really can’t say that in Kentucky, which is so stupid, because there are too many people who would go, ‘Coal is our livelihood.’ ” Bess is then asked if she thinks that if Grimes is elected, she’d “do the right thing and wipe out that coal industry and go for better resources.” Bess responds, “I absolutely think she is.”

But Bess isn’t a Grimes campaign staffer either.

Bob Layton, chair of the Fayette County Democratic Party, told us in a phone interview that both Heise and Bess are “100 percent volunteers with the Fayette County Democratic Party.” While both support Grimes’ candidacy, he said, “I am certain they are not a part of the Grimes campaign, and I am certain they have never been to any Grimes campaign staff meetings.” Layton said the videos were shot surreptitiously in the Fayette County Democratic Party offices without its consent.

The McConnell ad also shows a Grimes donor, Niko Elmaleh, saying, “she’s going to *** [coal companies] as soon as she gets elected. Take my word for it.” That comes from a second Project Veritas video. Records show Elmaleh donated $2,600 to the Grimes campaign on June 23, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Elmaleh, who is in real estate, is certainly entitled to his opinion. But that’s all it is: his opinion.

Others quoted in the Project Veritas videos include members of the Warren County Democratic Party offices, a field organizer in the Louisville Democratic office, a former Kentucky auditor and Grimes supporter, and a Grimes campaign field organizer.

The Grimes campaign said none of them is actually employed as a Grimes campaign staffer. We also checked records filed with the Federal Election Commission, and none of those featured in the Project Veritas video is listed on the campaign payroll.

The Grimes campaign emailed a statement to FactCheck.org saying, “The sleazy video Mitch is himself peddling does not contain Alison’s staff, nor does it in any way represent her views.”

We asked specifically about Chase Sanders, identified in the Project Veritas video as a Grimes campaign field organizer, who said Grimes is “trying to get votes in that sense from parts of Kentucky that that’s appealing to but once she gets in she’s going to be very realistic about the fact that there are environmental problems and she will do her part, in a sense, to support those things.”

The Grimes campaign told us, however, that Sanders “does not work for the campaign.” Thomas Mann, a campaign expert for the Brookings Institution, said campaign field organizers have nothing to do with campaign strategy anyway. They focus on voter identification, canvassing and voter turnout.

The Grimes campaign said it is “shameful and reeks of desperation” for McConnell to use the work of O’Keefe, “a convicted criminal – with a known history of manipulating and fabricating these videos.”

O’Keefe rose to national prominence in 2009 after releasing a series of videos purporting to show employees at voter registration organization ACORN going along with illegal activities. In 2013, O’Keefe agreed to pay $100,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former ACORN employee featured in one of O’Keefe’s videos who appeared to go along with O’Keefe’s make-believe scheme to smuggle underage girls into the U.S. to act as prostitutes. The man in the video actually called police shortly after O’Keefe left the office to report a potential crime.

In 2010, O’Keefe was convicted of a misdemeanor charge after he and three other members of Project Veritas tried to finagle their way into Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office. O’Keefe pleaded guilty to entering federal property under false pretenses and was sentenced to three years of probation and 100 hours of community service, and fined $1,500.

Also worth noting, a California attorney general’s report in 2010 on the ACORN videos concluded that unedited versions of the videos, in addition to showing “highly inappropriate” though not illegal behavior by ACORN employees, also revealed how some of the ACORN videos released by O’Keefe had been deceptively edited.

And so we asked for raw, unedited videos from the interviews regarding Grimes. Stephen Gordon, a spokesman for Project Veritas Action Fund, told us via email that the group “does not release raw or unedited tapes or reporters’ notes of investigations. This policy ensures compliance with federal and state laws while providing the best privacy protection for individuals recorded.”

“The reporting process and methods of Project Veritas Action are proven successful and effective and are the protected intellectual property and trade secrets of Project Veritas Action,” Gordon added. “This policy is in accordance with the practices of news organizations globally and is generally accepted as the professional norm.”

Without the unedited versions, we can’t provide any further context to the comments featured in the Project Veritas videos. But even taking the videos at face value, what is shown on the Project Veritas videos, and in the McConnell ad, are the opinions of Grimes supporters. The videos are not, as the McConnell ad claims, evidence of “Grimes’ own staff” showing that “Grimes is lying, only praising coal to win an election.” Also, O’Keefe and the McConnell campaign accuse Grimes of lying without considering the possibility that the supporters shown in the video are just telling the undercover actors, who posed as liberals concerned about Grimes’ coal-friendly statements, what they think the actors want to hear.

As we noted back in June when an ad accused Grimes of being “silent” as “Obama attacked coal,” Grimes has been vocal and consistent throughout her campaign about her opposition to Obama administration regulations on the coal industry.

Correction, Oct. 15: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect spelling of Roz Heise’s name, based on her identification in the Project Veritas video.

— Robert Farley