Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe Ruined Him, and Now He Gets $100,000

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Former ACORN employee Juan Carlos Vera sued after being wrongly portrayed as a willing participant in an underage sex-trafficking scheme. Breitbart still hasn't corrected the item!

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This image, taken today from Breitbart.com, is scandalous, as you'll understand if you read on. The man pictured is Juan Carlos Vera.

The most absurd passage ever published at Breitbart.com appears in a November 2011 article by Ron Capshaw, under the headline, "The Birth of the Democratic Campaign Tactics: 1964." The piece begins by discussing the race between Barry Goldwater and Lyndon Johnson. Then one reaches the third paragraph: "Journalists on the campaign trail saw Johnson drunkenly board a plane armed with nuclear weapons and then accidentally drop them on the United States," the article states. "Luckily, by the grace of God, they did not go off. None of this was reported, while newspapers editors worked in overdrive to portray Goldwater as eager to push the button."  

How I love that passage. It isn't just that it appears without attribution, as if the reader should accept such an anecdote without citation. What's so priceless is that, even in a scenario where it improbably proved to be true, a writer and editor would still have just slipped it into the article as a casual aside, quietly achieving the biggest buried lede in history. Adds the next sentence, "Today, pundits argue that dirty tricks by Carville and Begalia [sic] were something new on the horizon for Democrats and were borrowed from decades of Republican campaigns. But Johnson was a pioneer of the Clinton War Room." A near nuclear disaster is mentioned not as something to dwell on or condemn, but as incidental example of the actual subjects to be dwelled upon: liberal media bias and how it enables the rotten tricks that those evil Democrats play during political campaigns.

Several days ago, I said all of this on Twitter, to the delight of many who found the passage as humorous as I do. At the time, I saved a screenshot, fearing that the piece would be changed or taken down, but I needn't have worried. Normal journalistic impulses don't really apply at Breitbart.

No harm done in this instance. But the Andrew Breitbart-inspired, averse-to-correction mode of journalism isn't always so innocuous, as I was reminded yesterday when I saw that Juan Carlos Vera's name was back in the headlines. I haven't written about him for some time, but if you're looking for the most indefensible thing that happened when Andrew Breitbart worked with James O'Keefe, this is worth revisiting.

There's finally good news to report.

****

Juan Carlos Vera worked at an ACORN office in San Diego. One day, O'Keefe and Hannah Giles walked in with a hidden video camera and pretended to be a pimp and prostitute as part of a sting meant to prove that some of ACORN's employees were depraved leftists.

They asked Vera for help smuggling underage girls across the Mexican border so that they could work in a brothel. Confronted with what appeared to be a sex-trafficking plot, you'd hope that someone in Vera's position would play along, get as much information as possible, and call the police.

And guess what?

That's exactly what Vera did.

Unbeknownst to O'Keefe or Giles, he called his cousin, a police officer, shortly after they left his office. Perhaps you know what happened next. Internet entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart published the ACORN hidden videos, which exposed some actual instances of bad behavior at the organization, but also turned out to be egregiously misleading to the millions who watched them.

This is true of a lot of the ACORN videos.
 

But the San Diego ACORN video was particularly misleading. O'Keefe produced, and Breitbart published and publicized, videos that made an innocent man look as if he was complicit in a would-be plot to traffic underage girls across the border. They didn't do this on purpose. Still, it happened.

And it cost the guy his job:

A man fired from ACORN's San Diego-area office for discussing human smuggling with a fake pimp and prostitute reported the incident to police two days after it happened, according to information released by the police. Juan Carlos Vera was fired by ACORN after a videotape was aired on Fox News showing him discussing with a couple posed as a pimp and a prostitute the best ways to smuggle underage prostitutes into the U.S. from El Salvador.

"It's better if it's in Tijuana," Vera is heard saying in the video.  "Because I have a lot of contacts in Tijuana."

But police said in a press release that Vera reported the incident to his cousin, a detective with the National City Police Department. Vera worked in ACORN's National City office. The detective contacted a federal task force that deals with human smuggling, and an officer from the task force asked for more details. 

After making Vera look like an eager would-be sex trafficker, what did Breitbart and O'Keefe do when it was reported that he had in fact called the police? What did they do when the California Attorney General investigated the case and affirmed as much? Did they append a correction to the story and apologize? Did they do what they could to give this man back his reputation?

They did not.

When last I wrote about this story in 2010, long after all the facts had come to light, there was no correction appended to the story. And look at the page today: The original story is still up with no correction, no clarification, no editor's note -- nothing. Long ago I confronted O'Keefe on Twitter about Vera. Back when he was alive I confronted Andrew Breitbart about the man too.  

This was the only Breitbart response I recall seeing (the site's architecture has changed, so it's possible that something else was posted at some point that isn't appearing up in my searches). Breitbart also addressed the Vera matter on Twitter in this confused, misleading tweet: "Juan Vera called [his police officer] cousin LONG after videos were filmed --  when James [O'Keefe] refused to hook up w him to help girls over border. Try again!"

Incorrect.

After examining phone records and conducting interviews with two police officers, the California Attorney General's Office reported [PDF] this about O'Keefe and Giles's visit with Vera [emphasis added]: "Immediately after the couple left, Vera telephoned his cousin, Detective Alejandro Hernandez, at the National City Police Department."

The report goes on:
He left a voicemail message for Detective Hernandez stating that some "crazy people" were in his office providing information. Vera did not explain the substance of the conversation and did not make reference to prostitution or human smuggling on the message. He asked his cousin to call him back. Later that day, Vera also reported the incident to fellow ACORN employee Cruz Acosta. Acosta had been away from the office while the couple was present. Vera explained to him what happened. Vera also reported the incident, either the same day or shortly thereafter, to Mar Murrillon, an ACORN board member. Vera told Murrillon that he had reported the incident to the police. (Vera Interview.) Vera eventually spoke with Detective Hernandez on August 27, 2009.

So Breitbart was factually wrong.

He willfully ignored me when I pointed that out at the time.

Months later, he was still insinuating than an innocent man was willing to comply with the transnational smuggling of underage prostitutes. In 2010, when I was obsessed with this story, I kept marveling aloud at it, but it did nothing to dim Breitbart's star or to prevent conservatives from shoveling money to O'Keefe for more hidden-video projects, the dubious results of which we've since seen.

I hate to say I told you so.

You'd think that someone in the conservative press, or some media critic, would have jumped on this long ago, but no one ever got interested. And by all appearances, Breitbart.com is being run today by people with no interest in doing justice in this case.

Anyway, no thanks to them, there's been a bit of justice after all: Juan Carlos Vera sued O'Keefe and Giles "for $75,000 in damages, arguing that he was taped without consent in violation of state law, and portrayed untruthfully. And as of yesterday, O'Keefe agreed to pay him $100,000 in damages and tender an apology." Actually, the "apology" is pretty weak, but whatever. The paperwork is below.

As you can see, it didn't require O'Keefe to admit wrongdoing or to fully apologize for the wrong he did Vera, so while the $100,000 debt has presumably been discharged, he still owes Vera that much.

Breitbart ought to publish an apology too, but how often do they ever do the right thing? And as much as I hate to say it, they may also want to fact check that scoop about LBJ and the loose nukes. If they can confirm it, they might even find that it's worth bumping the part about the near nuclear detonation (due to the drunken recklessness of the president) up to the second paragraph.


  Vera O'Keefe ACORN $100,000 Settlement Agreement


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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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