San Francisco school officials and labor organizers are investigating a video secretly recorded by a right-wing group called Project Veritas and released online yesterday. The video and audio, which are edited to an unknown degree, purport to show 2015 conversations with a union representative, United Educators of San Francisco's treasurer and field representative Antonio Mankini, in which Mankini seems to advise teachers against coming forward after hitting students. "Were there any witnesses?” Mankini asks. “Just keep it that way. Seriously. If there weren’t any witnesses, it’s his word against the kid’s.”
Project Veritas operatives posing as an SF teacher and his friend went to discuss matters with Mankini and recorded the video without the union representative's knowledge. In it, Mankini appears to admit that he himself has been violent toward students, "clotheslining" one. “And that one still bothered me,” he appears to say in the video. "That one, yeah, because I crossed the line. I know, I mean, I made it look like an accident and all the witnesses would have said, ‘No, he ran into my arm.’"
In light of the video, the United Educators of San Francisco have placed Mankini on administrative leave, the Chronicle reports, though the labor group casts doubt on the veracity of Project Veritas's footage, citing the track record of founder James O'Keefe.
“O’Keefe and Project Veritas are known for breaking laws, lying, and wrongdoing in pursuit of their political agenda,” the statement reads. “Nevertheless, the deceptive video clips that O’Keefe has posted are troubling and we are committed to a swift, full, and fair investigation so that all appropriate actions can be taken.”
Andrew Seaman, chairman of the ethics committee for the Society of Professional Journalists, urges a healthy dose of skepticism. “If it’s cut up or choppy, there’s probably something else in there,” Seaman told the Examiner. “It’s one of those things where it may look damning, but you don’t know what else happened during that interview.”
James O'Keefe was the subject of a 2016 New Yorker piece that profiled his and similar right-wing sting operations, self-directed conservative opposition research with the goal of entrapping liberals in damning admissions (or at least in statements that could be construed as damning when re-cut or edited). Among these efforts was one by a group called the Center for Medical Progress who attempted to frame Planned Parenthood as a harvester of "baby parts" and fetal tissue. Later, a Texas grand jury indicted the Center for Medical Progress and cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing.
To the New Yorker, O'Keefe demonstrated tiny cameras he'd hidden in wristwatches, iPods, and Aquafina water bottles. But O'Keefe's attempts have also backfired: He was caught trying to infiltrate a George Soros group when he failed to hang up the phone after a call and was heard revealing himself. He's also been sued in California, such as in 2009, when a representative from liberal community-organizing group ACORN was ensnared by an O'Keefe video. Although the ACORN official was fired, he collected a settlement in the hundreds of thousands of dollars from O'Keefe, as he hadn't consented to the videotaping, as is required in California.
Regardless of O'Keefe's background, San Francisco Unified School District spokesperson Gentle Blythe wrote in an email to the Examiner that the system found the material "very disturbing."
“We have grave concerns about the behavior Mr. Mankini references and encourage any former students, staff or family members who may have experienced mistreatment from Mr. Mankini or any other district employee to report their concerns immediately,” Blythe wrote.