U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill’s campaign is demanding Attorney General Josh Hawley open a fraud investigation into hidden-camera videos released this week by a nonprofit run by conservative activist James O’Keefe.
The videos show O’Keefe’s Project Veritas Action Fund going undercover to secretly interview members of McCaskill’s campaign. The group, a 501c4 nonprofit, advertised the videos as proof that McCaskill, a Democrat, has been hiding her views on guns and abortion from Missouri voters.
McCaskill and Hawley, a Republican, are in a tight election race that could help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.
David Kirby, McCaskill’s campaign manager, said in a conference call with reporters on Wednesday that there is reason to believe Project Veritas committed fraud that violated the state’s merchandising practices act.
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That law prohibits deceptive business practices and is enforced by the attorney general’s office.
Kirby said the videos were captured under false pretenses and misrepresentations, “which under Missouri law is fraud.”
Kirby said Hawley must recuse himself and appoint a special prosecutor to look into the videos, which he called “gutter politics.”
He went on to criticize the fact that Hawley and his campaign have been publicizing the videos and encouraging voters to watch them on social media and in fund-raising emails.
“This is not about Project Veritas,” Kirby said. “This is about the attorney general’s failure to stand up and call out fraudulent activity.”
Kirby also said the campaign is contemplating other legal actions aside from any potential fraud investigation by the attorney general’s office.
A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Hawley responded on his campaign’s Twitter account.
“Senator, accusing people of crimes is a serious thing,” Hawley tweeted. “If you have evidence of a crime, please come forward with it immediately. Otherwise, please stop politicizing the legal process for your reelection.”
Marco Bruno, a spokesman for Project Veritas Action Fund, said “we will fully cooperate with any investigation (that) may be initiated.”
O’Keefe’s organization is known for its “sting” operations against Democrats and media organizations. He has been criticized for selectively editing videos to misrepresent the context of conversations and the subjects’ responses.
In 2010, as a result of a failed undercover action targeting then-Democratic U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, O’Keefe pleaded guilty to entering federal property under false pretenses. He received three years probation, a fine of $1,500 and 100 hours of community service.
In one video, a McCaskill staffer says that the senator downplays her support for gun control. Another staffer suggests she is downplaying her support from former President Barack Obama. In another video, McCaskill is accused of trying to hide her support from Planned Parenthood.
McCaskill’s campaign has dismissed the videos, saying the senator has never tried to hide her positions on the issues from voters and the video contained nothing she hasn’t said publicly before.
Initially, the McCaskill also insinuated in a prepared statement that Hawley had a direct hand in “fraudulently embedding somebody in my campaign.” She later sent out an amended statement walking that back slightly, saying only that Hawley had embraced someone being fraudulently embedded in her campaign.
On Wednesday, Kirby noted that an outspoken Hawley supporter -- veteran GOP consultant Gregg Keller -- appeared to have known the content of the video before it was made public.
Keller released a statement saying he was “shocked and amazed that McCaskill and her staff have decided to make James O’Keefe’s guerrilla video, which was incredibly embarrassing to her and her staff, a continuing campaign issue. “
He said he had nothing to do with the production or dissemination of the video, “although I wish I had. Additionally, I’m very pleased that in the closing weeks of the Missouri Senate race, McCaskill’s campaign is focused on me and my supposed machinations.”
The Star’s Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.