In mid-December 2017, far-right Internet personalities Chuck C. Johnson and Mike Cernovich boasted about being in possession of documents detailing sexual harassment that they claimed would end the career of a United States senator. But it turned out the documents were forged.
The incident illustrates a recent trend in which political operatives opposed to a free press try and discredit reporters by attempting to plant fake stories. The practice gained steam in the lead-up to the special election in Alabama after a heavily-sourced Washington Post story detailed allegations of sexual molestation against the losing candidate, Republican Roy Moore.
Both Cernovich and Johnson have claimed that a "hoaxer" gave them the falsified documents. Cernovich pointed to a video he posted on Periscope in which he said early on he doubted the veracity of the documents. In a phone interview he told us claims he backpedaled after the police were called were inaccurate:
If people want to have a good laugh at me because I thought I had a good story and I didn’t, that's fine. This is a learning experience for me -- not to hype something until it’s fully developed.. I felt a great deal of embarrassment because I thought it was real.
What’s sort of annoying to me is, I don’t mind people making fun of me on the Internet. But the whodunit it is way more interesting. This person put a lot of thought into the hoax.
Cernovich sent us a copy of the complaint. It is a password-protected PDF that looks like a court document -- except it's missing names of attorneys. It also references House Rule 23 (Schumer of course is a senator to whom House Rule 23 wouldn't apply). Axios, which first reported Schumer had gone to the police noted another red flag -- on some of the dates of alleged incidents, Schumer was traveling outside Washington, D.C.
However Cernovich pointed to text messages that show hoaxer falsely claiming to know the fake harassment victim's husband and using a false identity to make the story seem credible. The document also contained details that could be corroborated -- for instance it mentions one incident occurred on the day Schumer sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency. Cernovich said:
It goes to show the length people will go to now to hoax the media.
The document was apparently shopped around to various news outlets but no one would bite — except Johnson. On 12 December 2017, Johnson took to his Facebook page and bragged:
Currently reading the sexual harassment settlement documents of a major Democratic US Senator...
Later he wrote:
Michael Cernovich & I are going to end the career of a U.S. Senator.
Cernovich wrote similarly salacious teases, reporting he was on the phone with Johnson who had the "full case file." Later, he wrote:
I am in possession of a sexual harassment complaint filed against on of [Senator Gillibrand's] colleagues. Will she read the complaint? Ask John Conyers if I'm bluffing.
Both have been criticized for these posts. Cernovich said he deleted his because they were inaccurate.
Matt House, spokesman for Sen. Schumer, sent us the following statement:
The document is a forged document and every allegation is false. We have turned it over to the Capitol Police and asked them to investigate and pursue criminal charges because it is clear the law has been broken. We believe the individual responsible for forging the document should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law to prevent other malicious actors from doing the same.
Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for Capitol Police, told us the agency doesn't comment on ongoing investigations.
After it became apparent that the document was false, Johnson posted a statement about the incident to his Facebook page:
I was sent a very sophisticated complaint that claimed Senator Chuck Schumer had sexually harassed a subordinate and paid her off. After communicating with the source through encrypted email and texts the source went dark. I sent the document to multiple journalists, lawyers, and members of Congress, all of whom agreed it should be investigated. I am offering $10k for the identity of the persons responsible and would be happy to cooperate with any investigators.
We contacted Johnson by phone. He only said, "I don't like you guys, bye," before hanging up.
Both Johnson and Cernovich have colorful histories as Internet characters. Cernovich has ricocheted from hawking a self-help regimen he calls "Gorilla Mindset" and spreading bizarre and debunked conspiracy theories like PizzaGate only to help Buzzfeed News land a scoop by providing them with settlement documents in which a staffer accused long-time Democratic Michigan Rep. John Conyers of sexual harassment, a story which led to Conyers' resignation.
Johnson has found himself in the limelight more than once for spreading false information. In 2014 he made his first public splash by attempting to publicly name an anonymous woman who wrote a controversial essay about being sexually assaulted on a college campus — but he named the wrong person. His web site GotNews.com retracted a story in August 2017, again for naming the wrong person, this time as the driver of a car that drove into a crowd of counter-protesters during a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and killed 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The story resulted in death threats targeting the innocent man and pending defamation litigation against Johnson.
Later in 2017, his site falsely accused a Mandalay Bay security guard of being an accomplice during the 1 October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas, spawning multiple conspiracy theories.
Johnson also runs the web site WeSearchr where he raises money to crowdfund causes like supporting legal defense for the neo-Nazi web site Daily Stormer or seeking out information to show French president Emmanuel Macron is gay. The address given on that site for both "WeSearchr Holdings" and GotNews belongs to a uniform store in El Monte, California that sells scrubs for health care workers.