- In the days following the 2020 presidential election, Project Veritas published reports that targeted the Erie postmaster, Robert Weisenbach
- The reports, which alleged voting fraud over the handling of mail-in ballots, were unproven
- Weisenbach sued Project Veritas and others for libel; Erie County Judge Marshall Piccinini has rejected Project Veritas’ request to toss the case
The Erie postmaster wrongly accused of backdating mail-in ballots in the 2020 presidential election can continue his legal effort to clear his name and collect damages in court.
The postmaster, Robert Weisenbach, can proceed with his libel lawsuit against Project Veritas, the conservative activist news organization that reported the unproven claims against him in November 2020 — claims that drew Erie into the national frenzy over the results of the presidential race and Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn his defeat.
Erie County Judge Marshall Piccinini has ruled against the preliminary objections of Project Veritas and the other two defendants, allowing Weisenbach’s suit to advance to the next stage, the evidence-gathering process known as a discovery, which includes depositions.
Piccinini ruled against Project Veritas; its founder, James O’Keefe; and Richard Hopkins, the now former postal employee who was the source of the claims against Weisenbach.
Project Veritas and the other defendants wanted the lawsuit tossed, claiming that the First Amendment protected Project Veritas’ reports on Weisenbach. The defendants are contending, among other things, that the reports constituted opinion rather than fact.
Weisenbach in April 2021 sued Project Veritas, O’Keefe and Hopkins, who characterized Weisenbach as part of an anti-Trump plot to tamper with the mail-in ballots and throw the presidential election to Joe Biden. Weisenbach filed an amended civil complaint in August.
A trial or other resolution is still a long way off, but Piccinini in his ruling said that Weisenbach’s claims, at this early point in the case, are “legally sufficient” for the suit to move forward in Erie County Common Pleas Court. He said Weisenbach’s claims included adequate information to allege that the defendants acted with actual malice, a key element for a plaintiff to prove in libel suits.
Claims and counterclaims:Free speech or libel? Erie postmaster, Project Veritas face off in court over election claims
“Whether Weisenbach will be able to offer adequate evidence to support his claims, and whether a jury would ultimately be willing to credit such evidence after hearing both sides of the story, remains to be seen,” Piccinini said in a 58-page opinion filed on Friday.
“For now, it is enough to hold that the averments set forth in the Amended Complaint are sufficient as a matter of law to permit the action to proceed to discovery, where the truth of these claims can begin to be tested in the crucible of our adversarial system.”
Piccinini also ruled that the proper jurisdiction of the case is Erie County Common Pleas Court. Hopkins wanted the case against him moved to federal court because he was a federal employee when he made the allegations against Weisenbach, his boss at the Erie General Mail Facility at 2108 E. 38th St. during the election on Nov. 3, 2020.
Piccinini based his ruling on court filings and arguments he heard at a three-hour hearing on Jan. 21. Among the defendants’ main arguments was that the Project Veritas reports could not be considered defamatory under the First Amendment. Piccinini disagreed.
‘The constitutional deck is not all stacked to one side,” Piccinini said in his ruling.
He said court decisions — including the landmark 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which set precedent for libel suits — “strike a careful balance between the standards of journalistic integrity that a pluralistic society dedicated to a free exchange of ideas must tolerate, and that which it need not. Weisenbach sufficiently avers that this case falls within the latter category.”
Project Veritas’ chief legal officer, Jered Ede, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Piccinini’s ruling.
Going to court:Erie postmaster files lawsuit against mail carrier, Project Veritas over ballot fraud claims
Weisenbach’s legal team includes David Houck, of Pittsburgh, and lawyers with United to Protect Democracy Inc., a New York-based nonprofit that focuses on “advocacy efforts to confront threats to our democracy,” according to its website. United to Protect Democracy is part of a group known as Protect Democracy, whose Law for Truth project is helping to pursue the lawsuit against Project Veritas and the other defendants.
“The court’s decision is a victory for Mr. Weisenbach, our system of government, and, more broadly, democracy itself,” Protect Democracy said in a statement. “Deliberate lies — and especially lies about elections — undermine government and the functioning of our democracy. They also often inflict grievous harm on victims who’ve done nothing wrong.”
Protect Democracy said it and the legal team “look forward to ensuring that Mr. Weisenbach and his family are made whole for the harm and suffering caused by defendants’ lies.”
Claims of a ‘whistleblower’
Hopkins first appeared on Project Veritas’ reports as an anonymous source on Nov. 5, 2020. He alleged to O’Keefe that on Nov. 4, 2020, he had heard Weisenbach and another supervisor discussing the backdating of mail-in ballots that arrived after Election Day, Nov, 3, 2020. With Democrats favoring the use of mail-in ballots over Republicans, the allegation was that the backdating had aided Biden over Trump.
Project Veritas, with offices in Westchester County, New York, circulated the claims on its social media platforms, dubbing Hopkins a “whistleblower.” Hopkins’ claims went viral as Trump and his supporters insisted the election was rigged against him.
Hopkins, still anonymous, also told O’Keefe on Nov. 5, 2020, that Weisenbach wanted the ballots backdated because Weisenbach is “a Trump hater” — an allegation that Weisenbach said is false. He said he voted for Trump, according to the lawsuit.
Initial claims:Conservative group claims mishandled ballots in Erie
On Nov. 6, 2020, the day after the first Project Veritas story ran, an unknown man confronted Weisenbach at his residence, according to the lawsuit. The man left after Millcreek Township police got involved, but Weisenbach and his wife were forced to temporarily abandon their home and take up refuge at a hotel two hours from Erie following the confrontation, according to the lawsuit.
Also on Nov. 6, 2020, investigators with the Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General interviewed Weisenbach, Hopkins and others. A summary of their report, issued on Feb. 26, said Hopkins recanted his initial allegations. The investigators said Hopkins stated “he had not heard a conversation about ballots at all — rather he saw the Postmaster and Supervisor having a discussion and assumed it was about fraudulent ballot backdating.”
USPS probe:Postal Service investigators: No evidence of mail ballot fraud in Erie
After his Nov. 6, 2020, interview with the Postal Service investigators, Hopkins revealed his identity in a new Project Veritas report and defended his claims. After another interview with the Postal Service investigators, on Nov. 9, 2020, he told Project Veritas in a Nov. 11, 2020, report that the investigators intimidated him and that he stood by his original account.
More investigation:Only 2 ballots that arrived late and had Nov. 3 postmark came from Erie postal facility
A day earlier, Nov. 10, 2020, Hopkins posted a video on YouTube declaring that, despite the news reports otherwise, “I did not recant my statements.” Trump that day retweeted Hopkins’ video and, on a Twitter post, called Hopkins a “brave patriot.”
The Postal Service placed Hopkins on unpaid leave on Nov. 10, 2020, saying that “your actions may have placed employees and yourself as well as the reputation of the Postal Service in harm’s way,” according to a letter to Hopkins that was included in Weisenbach’s lawsuit.
Hopkins resigned his job in April 2021, one of his lawyers said after the Jan. 21 hearing before Piccinini.
Weisenbach responds:Erie postmaster calls claims of mishandled ballots ‘100% false’
‘Provably false accusations’
Among the arguments of Weisenbach’s lawyers is that Hopkins’ allegations appealed to Project Veritas because they fit the organization’s “preconceived narrative” — its belief that the election was manipulated against Trump through the mishandling of mail-in ballots.
In reviewing Weisenbach’s claims that Project Veritas published false information about him, Piccinini in his ruling discussed Hopkins’ allegation that Weisebach was a “Trump hater.”
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Weisenbach, Piccinini said, had sufficiently made a claim that such a statement is a “factual assertion” that Weisenbach contends is “simply untrue.” Piccinini referred to September 2020 photos included in the amended lawsuit that showed Weisenbach holding a “Trump: Make America Great Again” flag and another of him wearing a “Trump 2020” face mask, “evincing the provable falsity of Weisenbach’s supposed animosity toward President Trump,” Piccinini said in his ruling.
“By and large,” he also said, “the defamatory statements alleged in the Amended Complaint do not consist of editorial commentary concerning supposed mail fraud at the Erie General Mail Facility or opinion as to the courageousness of the whistleblower, but provably false accusations levied against Weisenbach that he personally directed that mail-in ballots … be backdated … and that he did so because he was a ‘Trump hater.'”
Contact Ed Palattella at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.