Inside Project Veritas's Cynical, Transphobic Outing of a 65-Year-Old Fast Food Worker

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Inside Project Veritas's Cynical, Transphobic Outing of a 65-Year-Old Fast Food Worker

Vincent Marzello didn’t expect to be chatting with a stranger. The 65-year-old from West Lebanon, New Hampshire, sat at a computer in his local library, where he could get 30 minutes of internet, his only real online access. As Marzello remembers it, a youngish, blonde man struck up a conversation: he was from California, had just moved to the area. Then the man suddenly pivoted, musing aloud that he might have voted twice. An odd thing to mention to someone you’d just met; a confession to a crime, really. Marzello got the man’s phone number but never saw him again.

In hindsight, it was preposterously weird. A little over a year earlier, in 2019, Marzello had met with investigators who’d accused him of voting twice in the 2016 general election. He told almost no one about it. Of course, it wasn’t mere coincidence. It was the latest ham-fisted stunt from right-wing activist outfit Project Veritas; Marzello later identified the blonde Californian as Christian Hartsock, a longtime operative with the group (who’s recently been spotted in Wisconsin trawling for voter fraud). That strange meeting in the library was just the beginning of the attack by Veritas—with its billionaire funders and multimillion-dollar budget—targeting a transgender senior citizen living paycheck to paycheck on fast-food wages.

That attack has now reached its climax. Last week, Project Veritas had an on-camera meeting with New Hampshire’s deputy attorney general and the head of the state’s Election Law Unit. James O’Keefe, the organization’s founder and CEO, presented a hidden-camera video of Marzello describing how he’d voted twice in 2016. Later that same day, the attorney general’s office reportedly decided to prosecute Marzello. State police arrested him the next day.

Project Veritas hurriedly released its footage from this drama, boasting that “just a little more than 24 hours since we raised the issue,” Marzello had been taken to jail. The attorney general’s office was not shy in admitting pressure from O’Keefe’s group had led to the arrest. Meanwhile, the man at the center of it all, Vincent Marzello, wondered whether his life was ruined.

With its brief moment of mainstream respectability long behind it, Project Veritas has fully turned to the lucrative world of conservative propaganda-making. (As of 2018, O’Keefe made nearly $400,000 a year running the organization, while its total fundraising in 2019 was more than $13.44 million.) Lately, that’s meant Trump-supporting covid-19 denialism and, as we’ve previously reported, trying to delegitimize mail-in voting as part of a larger Republican effort at voter suppression and, in a more innovative twist, preemptively cast doubt on the results of the 2020 election. That’s up to and including President Trump’s recent recommendation that North Carolina residents vote twice, once via mail and again in person, to see whether anti-fraud efforts are “as good as they say.”

In the course of reporting that story, we received documents detailing Veritas’s next “sting.” In one, O’Keefe promised, “Our election bombshells are coming soon. The first election story is coming out September 8th at the highest levels of corruption.” The grammatically challenged claim appeared as a postscript in an email to one of the group’s most generous and engaged donors, billionaire industrialist Robert “Dr. Bob” Shillman.

Among other right-wing causes, the Shillman Foundation has funded the work of William Kilpatrick, a former professor of educational psychology at Boston College who has argued that transgender activism is a “fad” and transgender identity a “lie” about which “the rest of us are expected to collude.” That perspective aligns nicely with the recent Republican Party line. During the 2020 Republican National Convention, for example, Cissie Graham Lynch, granddaughter to the late televangelist and prominent homophobe Billy Graham, reminded convention viewers that Democrats under “the Obama-Biden administration” had “pressured schools to allow boys to compete in girls sports and use girls locker rooms.” Transphobes, in this worldview, are under siege.

A second document seemed likely to be among the bombshells promised to Dr. Bob. An “AAR”—an “after-action report”—by operative codenamed “Magnum” with an assist by “Peter Pan” (yes, they do use this spy-cosplay jargon) transcribed a hidden camera video of a Project Veritas operative confronting Marzello and, after some perfunctory small talk, leading him to say he’d voted twice in 2016.

Marzello said that he’d voted once as Marzello, using his government-issued identification. Then he’d voted again as “Helen Elisabeth Ashley,” an identity he often uses, filing a challenged voter affidavit in her name. That required having his picture taken, dressed to outwardly express the Helen identity.

In an interview with Jezebel, Marzello struggled to explain the relationship between his separate identities. “Vincent is Vince, and does Vince things. Helen is Helen, and she does Helen things,” he said. “They don’t come together; they’re separate. I used to try to fight it there, for a while. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. The relationship—there really isn’t a relationship, other than two people in one body or whatever, I guess.”

He described having that feeling since his mid-20s, or maybe, he said, he felt it before then and never acted on it. He never considered therapy; he couldn’t afford it even if he wanted to try. “I kept it very, very private,” Marzello said.

As for why he voted under both identities, he doesn’t have a great answer. He said he hadn’t voted in probably 20 years before 2016: “I usually don’t find people worth voting for anyway.” He remembered voting for the Constitutional Party as Vincent. “I thought Helen voted for the Republican Party, but I can’t even remember,” he said. “That was almost four years ago.”

It’s unclear how Project Veritas knew to target Marzello. To that point, no investigation had been publicly announced, but information about it could have leaked out. The group didn’t give up after its botched library operation. On August 21, 2020, Marzello was in the parking lot of Hartford Redemption, a bottle and can redemption center. Marzello told Jezebel that he only makes the trip there every two or three months, when he has enough recycling to make the trip worthwhile. That day, in the nearly empty lot, he was approached by a man—Veritas’s “Magnum.” The man wore a long black wig, strands of which kept blowing over and obscuring his face. Looking back, Marzello wonders if this wasn’t a clumsy attempt at rapport building—as though he would feel more at ease talking to a man “like me.” Similarly, Marzello recalls Magnum saying something along the lines of “your secret’s safe with me,” indicating that the organization knew they’d be outing Marzello.

“Hey, Helen. Helen,” the operative said, according to the transcript. “Hey, how you been?” Marzello had never seen him before, he told Jezebel; it wasn’t the same man he’d met at the library. And he was certainly surprised to be greeted by that name. But, describing himself as too trusting, he said he’d eventually shared the full story, from his double voting to the investigation, to his attempts to get a job working as a poll worker or census taker.

Even the group’s partial transcript—presumably of clips selected for maximum effect—details an underwhelming “sting.” According to the transcript, Marzello described voting as Vincent for the Constitution Party, which in 2016 was only a write-in option on the New Hampshire ballot, and received just over 200,000 presidential votes nationwide, or 0.15 percent of the total. He told the Veritas member, “And for Helen, I think I voted Democratic,” to which the undercover operative responded, “Interesting… sort of canceled itself out…”

According to New Hampshire voter rolls, Vincent Marzello is registered as “undeclared,” while Helen Elisabeth Ashley is registered with the Democratic Party. Marzello had registered as himself using his own name and identification. As Helen, in October 2016, he filed a domicile affidavit, attesting under penalty of fraud that he didn’t have identification proving where he lived. He didn’t enter a fake address—he filled in the same address as Vincent Marzello. (Project Veritas later used these documents in their video and posted them online, putting Marzello’s current address in front of many people very likely to strongly disapprove of his actions.)

He had also completed a qualified voter affidavit, testifying that, as Helen, he did not have documentation to prove his identity. In November 2016, when he voted as Helen, he completed a challenged voter affidavit, which again required attesting to his identity and domicile, even though he didn’t have official documents proving either. Doing so required having his photo taken while dressed as Helen, a grainy black-and-white image that has now featured prominently in Project Veritas’s videos and nearly all subsequent media coverage.

In his Helen identity, Vincent had also applied to be an inspector of elections—New Hampshire-speak for a poll worker. The state requires all inspectors of election to be affiliated with one of the two parties, which Marzello, registered as “undeclared,” was not. Helen, however, was a registered Democrat. He says he wanted to make some extra money; rates vary in New Hampshire for the thousands of people who work as inspectors of election, but likely he wouldn’t have made more than $200 dollars working Election Day 2020.

In the parking lot, the Veritas operative asked about that, too. According to the transcript, “Magnum” wondered whether the Democratic Party had ever learned about Marzello’s double-voting when he applied to be a poll worker. Marzello said he never heard from them, possibly because they had his old phone number. He went on to say he’s still looking for a more immediate way to make money—that’s why he’s at the recycling center. It wasn’t until almost a week after this encounter that the party, after learning of an investigation into Marzello, rescinded his appointment as an inspector of elections.

About the most damning admission comes when Marzello describes cooperating with the investigator who questioned him in late 2019 about voting twice. “I just told him I’m ashamed, freaking,” he says, according to the transcript. “I was almost in tears, you know?“ In his recounting, the officer told him cases like his weren’t “a big priority,” and “it could be freaking shoved under a bunch of papers and forgot [sic] about.” It might be this bit of inconclusive dialogue that later had O’Keefe asking, “Coverup?”

Days after we contacted Marzello to ask him about the transcript, O’Keefe and a Project Veritas cameraman showed up at his front door, yelling out questions. They followed him to his job at a fast-food restaurant, yelling more questions and asking co-workers whether they knew he’d voted twice, repeatedly until they were asked to leave.

None of that made it into the finished video. Hyped as a “BOMBSHELL,” it fizzles. Veritas describes Marzello as an “NH Election Official,” a claim that’s only approximately true. But it’s clear he’s only collateral damage: the real target is the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office, who O’Keefe berates for their supposedly slow response to such a dastardly act of voter fraud.

“I’m trying to understand what more evidence you could possibly need, other than the voter affidavit that has this person dressed up as someone else and a confession out of his own mouth,” O’Keefe melodramatically intones in the video. (In a rare nod to the reality of covid-19, he’s wearing a face mask.) New Hampshire Deputy Attorney General Jane Young cozily reassures him, “I think our track record speaks for itself. Nobody knows that better than you, right? You brought us the Bell case, and that was a case that we prosecuted.” (In 2019, Bob Bell was convicted of voting in both New Hampshire and Florida in the 2018 midterms and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and perform 50 hours of community service, following a previous Veritas hidden-camera operation.)

Soon after that conference room scene, Marzello was arrested and charged with wrongful voting, a felony punishable by up to seven years in prison. He also faces fines for obtaining a ballot under a name other than his own. The New Hampshire attorney general’s office quickly issued a press release. Young went on to tell The New Hampshire Union Leader, “Without the involvement of Project Veritas, would we have brought the case today? Likely not. We have a couple more voter cases and in the run-up to the presidential election, we are giving them to more than just the one attorney we have in the election law unit.”

“We are reallocating,” she continued. “We recognize when these come in, we should do them quicker; we will do better.”

And Project Veritas got to brag. “Today, the Attorney General’s office finally took action and arrested Vincent Marzello and charged him with felony voter fraud,” reads the conclusion of the typo-ridden video. Veritas, which boasts to donors of its ability to get media attention and force firings and resignations, had gotten its scalp. Ever the hype man, O’Keefe tweeted multiple times “stay tuned,” promising “MUCH MORE TO THIS STORY!”

Vincent Marzello is worried he’ll lose his fast-food job. After Veritas showed up at his workplace, the owners asked if they could do a background check; with his arrest and subsequent publicity on television and the front page of the local paper, his boss has implied that if customers start coming in to gawk at the guy who voted twice, Marzello could be out of a job. After his arrest, he said he had 85 cents in his checking account—not even enough to pay the $40 dollars usually required to leave jail. Losing his job would likely mean being unable to pay rent, which would force him to live out of his car. He’s looking for a lawyer, but likely can’t afford anything more than a court-issued public defender.

The publicity has outed Marzello. For someone who’s hidden this part of his life even from those closest to him, it’s a crushing blow. He’s thinking about leaving town—“75 or 100 miles away”—because he knows people will talk. His siblings don’t watch much television, but now he’s wondering what happens if they see him on the news—would they even want to talk about it?

He’s ashamed. He imagines his brother calling him, and Marzello being backed into a corner, trying to explain how he’s spent decades alone, trapped. He thinks about how the secrecy has bent his life, maybe even prevented him from being the best version of himself. He thinks, though, if his brother did call, they could talk. “If I can’t talk to my brother about it, who the hell can I talk to about it?” he says. “Very, very reluctantly.”

Tired, confused, and exasperated, he asks Project Veritas and O’Keefe, “You’re trying to build a career… on what? Screwing over old people? My whole life—this isn’t just going to go away in just a few months. It’s gonna be with me for the rest of my life.”

Or, more directly: “You’re an asshole, O’Keefe.”

Liz Farkas, a New York state-licensed private investigator, provided additional reporting and research for this article

Jesse Hicks is a journalist based in Detroit, whose work has appeared in Vice, Politico, Harper’s, The New Republic, and elsewhere. @jessehixxx

Matthew Phelan has written for Chemical Engineering, New York, Jacobin, and Gawker, where he founded the conspiracy vertical Black Bag in 2014. @CBMDP

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