Viral Video Spreads Unfounded Claim About Rep. Ilhan Omar and Voter Fraud

Omar is a frequent target of disinformation campaigns.

  • Published 29 September 2020
  • Updated 19 October 2020
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Videos released by the conservative activist group Project Veritas in the weeks leading up to the November 2020 U.S. general election accuse U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., of being connected to a so-called cash-for-ballot harvesting scheme, but lack evidence to support this accusation.

The group released two videos, on Sept. 27 and Sept. 28. The first was titled, “Ilhan Omar connected Ballot Harvester in cash-for-ballots scheme: ‘Car is full’ of absentee ballots.” The second is titled, “Omar Connected Harvester SEEN Exchanging $200 for General Election Ballot. ‘We don’t care illegal.'”

“Our sources inside the Somali community here [in Minneapolis] allege that the architect of this pay-per-vote scheme is none other than U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar,” Project Veritas head James O’Keefe announced dramatically in the opening of the Sept. 28 video.

The videos fed into the unfounded narrative promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump and his political allies that mail-in voting is prone to widespread fraud. Mail-in voting is expected to be key in the 2020 general election because of governmental restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Project Veritas videos rely mostly on anecdotes from unnamed and unseen sources, interviews with some who seemed unaware they were being recorded, and clips of conversations that raise questions about the original context and intent of the words spoken.

In short, the videos fail to provide evidence that Omar is connected with an illegal cash-for-ballots harvesting scheme.

Although “veritas” is Latin for “truth,” Project Veritas has a long history of high-profile cases in which they were accused of misrepresentation to serve a political agenda. Because of that, we asked the group for raw recordings used in the videos. Project Veritas spokesman Neil McCabe said in an email to Snopes, “We treat our raw video as the same as a reporter’s notebook and we do not release it.”

As we have previously reported, Omar, one of the first two Muslim women to serve in Congress and the first to wear a hijab, or religious head covering, “has long been a target of misinformation and false allegations, often transparently motivated by Islamophobia and xenophobia.”

Omar’s spokesman Jeremy Slevin told us there is no truth to the accusation that Omar was involved in any voter-fraud activities as alleged in the video.

“The amount of truth to this story is equal to the amount Donald Trump paid in taxes in ten out of the last fifteen years: zero,” Slevin said in a statement. “And amplifying a coordinated right-wing campaign to delegitimize a free and fair election this fall undermines our democracy.”

Slevin’s comment about Trump’s tax returns was in reference to a New York Times bombshell report, published hours before the first Project Veritas video was released, which detailed that while Trump had long claimed to be an ultra-wealthy real estate mogul, he paid a relatively negligible amount in federal income taxes and consistently posted financial losses over the years.

In the videos, “brave Project Veritas insider” Omar Jamal is the only person who sits for an on-camera interview using his full name. He describes himself as being “part of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office” and the chair of the Somali Watchdog Group.

We reached out to the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office and confirmed that Jamal does sometimes work for the department’s civilian-outreach detail. That means community support — for example, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, handing out face masks or delivering food to those in need, said Sheriff’s Office spokesman Roy Magnuson.

The Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office distanced itself from Jamal’s commentary in the video in a statement. “In regards to the voter fraud media investigation and allegation, Mr. Jamal was not acting as an employee of the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office. Any direct implication would be a violation of department policies.”

We attempted to reach Jamal through the website belonging to the Somali Watchdog Group but didn’t get a response. The website for the group, which doesn’t list any other members besides Jamal, was created on Aug. 17, 2020, according to the domain registry tool DomainTools.com.

The First Video

The first Project Veritas video relies heavily on Snapchat clips originally posted by a Minneapolis man named Liban Mohamed. But Mohamed never mentions Ilhan Omar. Instead, he mentions Minneapolis City Councilman Jamal Osman, who won his seat representing the city’s Ward 6 in an August 2020 special election. Osman is Mohamed’s brother.

Slevin told us Mohamed has never worked or volunteered for Omar’s campaign.

We reached out to both Mohamed, via social media, and Osman, via his office, for comment but were unable to reach either. Osman responded to the Project Veritas videos with a Facebook post that read, in part:

“I stated publicly the importance to run a positive and ethical campaign. I condemn behavior that contradicts these values. That is why I also condemn the continued attacks on the integrity of the East-African immigrant community in Minneapolis.”

In one of Mohamed’s Snapchats, he wrote a caption that said he was collecting absentee ballots. In others, he points the camera to show envelopes inside his car. Although he does make mention of money, ballots, and his brother Osman in separate Snapchats, Mohamed never states that he was paid to collect ballots.

That accusation was made by a man interviewed by and identified only as “Jamal,” a “member” of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) party, by Project Veritas.

Brian Evans, a spokesman for DFL, told us that DFL isn’t membership-based.

In the Snapchat videos, Mohamed speaks a mixture of English and Somali. A translation of what he says in Somali is presented on the screen by Project Veritas. He states at one point that his “car is full” of absentee ballots.

The video cuts to another one in which he says, “All of these are for Jamal Osman,” indicating envelopes in his car, but he doesn’t actually state that they are ballots. The word “ballots” is inserted into the translation by Project Veritas in ellipses. What’s on the envelopes themselves can’t be seen clearly.

In the Project Veritas video’s introduction, O’Keefe claims that Mohamed is “self-incriminating himself” in the Snapchat videos he posted. O’Keefe later states that the illegal scheme is centered on an apartment complex in Minneapolis.

We don’t know exactly what Mohamed was doing in his Snapchat videos. But ballot collection — sometimes referred to as “ballot harvesting” — is legal in Minnesota. As of this writing, a third party can collect mail-in ballots and deliver them to election officials on behalf of up to three voters. Between late July and early September 2020, there were no limits on how many absentee ballots an agent, or third party, could collect and deliver.

This was the result of court rulings that in July enjoined the state from limiting the number of ballots an agent could deliver, then in September reversed course and allowed the state to enforce a three-ballot maximum per agent.

Risikat Adesaogun, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Secretary of State’s Office, pointed out in a phone interview that Minnesota doesn’t have universal mail-in voting. Minnesotans who wish to vote by mail have to apply for an absentee ballot. Once the ballot is received, election officials must verify all the information on the ballot and its accompanying materials, including making sure signatures match.

Agents delivering ballots to election officials on behalf of voters don’t simply drop random ballots off, Adesaogun added. They have to show their identification and fill out a log recording that they have delivered ballots on behalf of voters.

One portion of the video appears to be a “sting” in which a Project Veritas employee approaches Mohamed to discuss money. But that portion of the video has poor, garbled audio, and no one can be seen on the tape. It’s also impossible to tell, from the clip provided, what exactly the conversation was about, or even verify that it’s Mohamed’s voice.

We asked a Project Veritas spokesman if anyone from the group ever reached out to Mohamed for comment, to which McCabe responded they had not.

The Second Video

Although the second video promises with its title that an “Omar Connected Harvester” would be “SEEN Exchanging $200 for General Election Ballot,” it’s unclear what’s going on in the clip. All one sees in the video is two unidentified men speaking Somali in an outdoor setting, discussing filling out a voter registration form. At one point, money allegedly changes hands.

The second video contains what sounds like a covert recording of a man we won’t name, because Project Veritas accuses him of serious wrongdoing but doesn’t present his side of the story. A spokeswoman for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office told us there are no charges filed against anyone with the man’s name.

According to the translation provided by Project Veritas, the man claims he was “given money so I could go vote,” even though he is described as a “ballot harvester,” not a paid voter.

Additionally, we note that what are presented as the most incriminating aspects of what the man states sound like audio clips taken out of a recording of a longer conversation.

An independent Somali translator we consulted noted that the translations in the Project Veritas videos are mostly accurate, with a few key exceptions — however the translator noted that some of the sentences are cut off and that context of the conversations isn’t clear. The translator asked their name be withheld for privacy reasons.

We asked McCabe who translated the Somali in the Project Veritas videos but didn’t receive an answer.

Credible Criminal Accusations?

“So the question is, what the does attorney general of Minnesota have to say about this,” O’Keefe said at the end of the first video. “What does the County Attorney, here in Minneapolis, what is he going to do about this? And finally, what is the Attorney General of the United States, William Barr intend to do?”

We reached out to the Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s Office but were told that the office wouldn’t have jurisdiction over any potential cases stemming from the videos — the Hennepin County attorney would.

The Hennepin County Attorney’s Office said in a statement that it hasn’t received any criminal complaints alleging illegal ballot harvesting this year.

The county prosecutor’s office said the Minnesota legislature has “designated local police departments as the agency responsible for investigating those types of allegations,” in regards to ballot and election-related criminal allegations. The police would then send their investigation to the county attorneys offices to consider potential charges.

According to the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, “If Project Veritas has evidence of election law violations, they should provide it to the Minneapolis Police Department.” 

McCabe stated that Project Veritas is a “newsgathering organization. We publish the news and it is up to law enforcement to decide if they want to investigate a story for criminal activity.”

The statement from the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office also noted this detail:

An individual who identified herself only as Megan recently contacted the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office with concerns about “ballot harvesting,” and an assistant Hennepin County Attorney recommended that she report her concerns to local law enforcement for investigation and review. The County Attorney’s Office has no information about whether this individual, or Project Veritas, contacted local law enforcement about their allegations.

Minneapolis Police spokesman Sgt. John Elder pointed us to a brief statement on the subject released by the department.

“The MPD is aware of the allegations of vote harvesting,” the statement reads. “We are in the process of looking into the validity of those statements. No further information is available at this time on this.”

A spokeswoman for the FBI said in an emailed statement that in keeping with the Bureau’s standard practice, it would neither confirm nor deny any investigation.

Our research didn’t uncover any credible evidence backing up the claim that Omar is guilty of participating in, or being the “architect” of, illegal ballot harvesting or election fraud.

We weren’t able to corroborate accusations of any potential wrongdoing by anyone featured in the videos, nor have we seen evidence of an alleged widespread voter fraud scheme targeting the Somali community in Minneapolis.

Since this story was published, Omar Jamal, the Project Veritas videos’ main source, seemed to contradict some of the elements in the videos in an interview with Somali-language television. Omar stated he hadn’t met anyone offering cash for a ballot, and that he believed Project Veritas’ footage allegedly showing an incident of cash changing hands in exchange for a ballot was depicting “how [cash-for-ballot] works.”

In an interview with the local news station KMSP-TV, Liban Mohamed stated that Jamal had offered him $10,000 in exchange for claiming he offered people cash for ballots — an offer Mohamed said he refused. Mohamed also stated that his Snapchat videos featured by Project Veritas were presented misleadingly.