Federal judge grants Project Veritas request to independent review of cellphones seized by FBI

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A federal judge agreed to a request from Project Veritas, an investigative journalism organization, to have an independent third-party review cellphones the FBI confiscated from the group’s founder, James O’Keefe.

U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres from the Southern District of New York, a President Obama appointee, ordered a “special master” to be appointed to manage the analysis of O’Keefe’s phones and other devices due to “potential First Amendment concerns.”

“The Court recognizes, as other courts in this district have concluded, that ‘the Southern District prosecutors have integrity and decency,’ and the filter team alone could conduct the review ‘with utmost integrity,’” Torres wrote in her order issued Wednesday.

“However, the Court determines that the appointment of a special master is warranted here because ‘it is important that the procedure adopted… not only be fair but also appear to be fair,'” she added.

“In light of the potential First Amendment concerns that may be implicated by the review of the materials seized from Petitioners, the Court finds that the appointment of a special master will ‘help to protect the public’s confidence in the administration of justice,'” the order continued.

California-based attorney Harmeet Dhillon celebrated the judge’s ruling.

“The appointment of a Special Master over the objections of the Department of Justice is further evidence of Government overreach in their heavy-handed violation of the First Amendment and journalistic privilege during the investigation of the purported theft of a diary belonging to the daughter of the President,” a representative for Project Veritas told Fox News in a statement.

“Project Veritas appreciates the ruling but continues to insist that the Government show the public why they conducted these raids and return legally privileged material immediately,” the representative added.

Torres had previously ordered the Justice Department to stop its review of O’Keefe’s phones to consider the Project Veritas request for a third-party overseer.

FBI agents conducted a pre-dawn raid of O’Keefe’s New York apartment in early November, a day after he criticized the Justice Department and the Bureau for raiding two other Project Veritas staffers in relation to a diary that was allegedly stolen from presidential daughter Ashley Biden.

“I awoke to the news that apartments and homes of Project Veritas journalists, or former journalists, had been raided by FBI agents. It appears the Southern District of New York now has journalists in their sights for the supposed ‘crime’ of doing their jobs lawfully and honestly. Or at least, this journalist,” he said at the time.

O’Keefe went on to explain that last year his organization was contacted by “tipsters” and offered the diary but after his journalists were unable to verify its veracity, it was turned over to federal authorities.

“We attempted to return the diary to an attorney representing Ms. Biden, but that attorney refused to authenticate it. Project Veritas gave the diary to law enforcement to ensure it could be returned to its rightful owner. We never published it,” O’Keefe said.

Following the raids, Project Veritas sent letters to the chairs and ranking members of various congressional committees asking them to investigate the Justice Department’s actions.

“These raids were not justified by any legitimate law enforcement concern. Project Veritas acted lawfully and within its First Amendment right to investigate a potential source of information relevant to the public interest,” attorney Mark Paoletta wrote in a letter to lawmakers sent Wednesday. “The FBI and DOJ try to justify their targeting of Project Veritas by arguing that it isn’t a real news organization, and its reporters aren’t real journalists… This is absurd.

“Project Veritas is a news gathering organization that engages in undercover journalism, which has long been a form of investigative journalism used to hold the government, corporations, and other organizations accountable. And as a news organization, it is entitled to the protection the Attorney General promised in his memo,” Paoletta added.

“But more importantly, the First Amendment’s protection is not limited to those the government or other legacy media deign to call ‘real’ journalists. It belongs to all the people of the United States who engage in reporting and ‘press’ activities, whether formally or informally,” he wrote.

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