Ivan Bates cites Project Veritas video of rival as race for Baltimore state's attorney heats up

The video footage from the hidden camera shows a woman prodding Thiru Vignarajah to give up confidential legal information and to dish on his boss, Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh.

It’s been nearly three years since the conservative organization Project Veritas posted videos of Vignarajah, then deputy attorney general, in an awkward hotel encounter with the unidentified woman.

Today, the videos have resurfaced in a political attack against Vignarajah as he campaigns to become Baltimore’s top prosecutor.

Ivan Bates, one of his Democratic rivals in the June 26 primary election, is trying to use the videos to convince voters that Vignarajah lacks the judgment to be Baltimore state’s attorney. Bates is also questioning the discretion of the incumbent state’s attorney, Marilyn Mosby, after she recently was forced to fire a campaign adviser who is facing domestic violence charges.

“Both current State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby and candidate Thiru Vignarajah have failed at times to demonstrate the judgment and leadership required to maintain the public’s trust,” Bates says.

The double-barreled attack by Bates in an otherwise sleeper campaign for one of the city’s most important positions demonstrates the type of fireworks expected to emerge in the three debates scheduled in the final weeks before the primary.

Vignarajah’s campaign has fired back at Bates, calling his use of the videos “dirty politics.” Mosby’s campaign has acknowledged its mistake in hiring the former political aide, Quincey Gamble. Otherwise, she has responded largely with silence — and the launch of a radio endorsement by Rep. Elijah Cummings, the popular Baltimore Democrat.

Bates said he was motivated to raise the two issues after Baltimore Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa resigned last week over federal charges of failing to file tax returns, a stunning development that Bates said demonstrates why it is critical for voters to fully vet candidates for public office.

“De Sousa’s resignation once again places the police department in a period of transition during a critical moment in the crime fight, and highlights the need for the city’s top prosecutor to lead and maintain the public’s confidence,” Bates said.

Vignarajah’s campaign said what matters most to voters is how the candidates will prosecute criminals and help reduce Baltimore’s violence. It criticized Bates for not showing up at several community forums with Vignarajah.

“We want to talk about how to combat the crises of violence unfolding in Baltimore,” said Matthew Krimski, a spokesman for Vignarajah’s campaign. “But Mr. Bates has skipped every debate except one. We hope Mr. Bates gets serious soon and stops playing dirty politics.”

The hotel-room video setup of Vignarajah was carried out by Project Veritas during a conference in New York City. Two YouTube videos show Vignarajah meeting a woman, talking over drinks then returning to his hotel room. They talk more, hug and she leaves.

Vignarajah said he had been separated from his wife for more than a year at the time. The woman is not identified and her face is blurred. She narrates their encounters, saying they met days later in Washington. The video resumes in a hotel room with them sitting and talking.

“Tell me more about this EPA thing,” she says. “You got me interested.”

Vignarajah tells her that Frosh plans to join a coalition of states and cities backing new Environmental Protection Agency rules to reduce pollution from power plants. The news was widely anticipated, but had not been publicly announced.

The videos had little impact when Project Veritas first posted them to YouTube, where they garnered about 64,000 views. At the time, Frosh addressed the video by standing by his deputy.

“Mr. Vignarajah is a skilled prosecutor and experienced manager. He is not only brilliant, he’s also self-effacing, humble and human,” the Democratic attorney general had said. “No protected or confidential information was revealed in any discussions.”

On its website, Project Veritas calls itself an investigative outfit that exposes “corruption, dishonesty, self-dealing, waste, fraud, and other misconduct in both public and private institutions.” The group has also been widely condemned for its tactics of hidden-camera stings and heavily edited videos.

Led by activist James O’Keefe, the group emerged in 2009 as a force in conservative politics after it helped bring down ACORN, a liberal social welfare organization. O’Keefe agreed to pay $100,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by an ACORN employee who was secretly filmed. Recently, O’Keefe made headlines for a failed attempt to plant a fake news story in The Washington Post.

Project Veritas did not return a message about the Vignarajah videos.

“This is a widely discredited right-wing attack group that has gone after progressive groups like Planned Parenthood and uses illegal tactics and doctored videos to serve their radical agenda,” Vignarajah said. “For a defense lawyer to turn to this right-wing group to score political points is the sign of a desperate campaign. This is not what voters want to hear about.”

Bates said the videos showed poor judgment, regardless of who was filming.

“He’s sitting there. He’s relaying this sensitive material to impress this young lady,” Bates said. “The fact that he would allow himself to be put in that situation in the first place — it doesn’t matter if it’s Project Veritas or whomever — it clearly shows a lack of judgment.”

Project Veritas was likely at the conference to embarrass anyone they could, he added. “He just happened to be the person who bit,” Bates said.

Bates said he wasn’t planning to bring up the videos until he read Vignarajah’s statement calling for De Sousa to step down. Vignarajah was the first candidate to do so, saying trust in police has fallen to an all-time low and the commissioner must be held to the highest standards.

“To actually stand on a pedestal and call someone else out?” Bates said.

The videos represent the latest spat between the two men as they seek to unseat Mosby.

Bates and Vignarajah previously squared off over dueling lawsuits that challenged whether each actually lived in the city and qualified to run for state’s attorney. A judge threw out both actions.

They have a tough battle in trying to defeat Mosby, especially as they continue to tear at each other. Mosby became one of the nation’s youngest city prosecutors when she won a stunning victory in 2014 at age 34. She drew national attention the following spring when she criminally charged six Baltimore police officers in the arrest and death of Freddie Gray. None were convicted.

Both Bates and Vignarajah have called attention to those unsuccessful prosecutions. They also blame her for the city’s record gun violence and characterize her office as ineffective — the same claim Mosby made against her predecessor.

tprudente@baltsun.com

twitter.com/tim_prudente

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