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Did a Postal Worker Witness Ballot Tampering in Pennsylvania?
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Did a Postal Worker Witness Ballot Tampering in Pennsylvania?

A man who appeared in a Project Veritas video has changed his story several times.

Two days after the election, a postal worker from Erie, Pennsylvania, claimed in a video published by Project Veritas that his superiors instructed postal workers to backdate ballots that were sent after Election Day. The alleged goal: Make late ballots eligible to be counted in the official Pennsylvania tally. The Trump campaign raised the issue with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, who passed it along to the Justice Department as evidence of widespread voter fraud in the presidential election.

Then, on November 10, Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform announced that the worker, Richard Hopkins, had recanted his “allegations of a supervisor tampering with mail-in ballots after being questioned by investigators.” That prompted another video from Project Veritas, a right-wing activist group founded by professional provocateur James O’Keefe, in which Hopkins walked back his statement to federal agents and claimed he hadn’t recanted his allegations. 

What’s going on? Let’s start with an explanation of the legal issues in the Pennsylvania election.

According to Pennsylvania state law, absentee ballots must be received “on or before eight o’clock p.m. the day of the primary or election,” but in September of this year, the state Supreme Court ruled that ballots postmarked by 8 p.m. on Election Day, November 3, could be counted through November 6. Republicans pushed back and the matter ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was decided that all ballots received after Election Day would be segregated and counted separately. 

Hopkins’ claims centered around those late-arriving ballots. For months before the election, the Trump campaign had argued that mail-in voting would lead to widespread voter fraud. The day after the election, the campaign sought to join “a pending appeal that asks the justices to pull back Pennsylvania’s three-day extended deadline for accepting ballots mailed by Election Day,” as the Wall Street Journal reported.  

In the November 5 Project Veritas video, O’Keefe interviews Hopkins and describes him as an anonymous “Pennsylvania USPS Whistleblower.” Hopkins, who is blurred out in the video, alleges that on the morning of November 5, postmaster Robert Weisenbach called for “ballots to be ‘back-dated.’” As Hopkins describes it in the video, he “saw the postmaster pull one of our supervisors to the side,” and he overheard him say to the supervisor “they messed up yesterday,” by postmarking one of the ballots November 4, instead of November 3. O’Keefe then asks Hopkins why the supervisor was upset, to which he responds “because he’s, honest to god, he’s actually a Trump hater.”

Hopkins eventually agreed to attach his name to these allegations and signed an affidavit, which Hopkins later told federal agents was written by Project Veritas.

On November 9, two days after Graham sent a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr about Hopkins’ claims, Barr reversed a long-established Justice Department policy and allowed federal prosecutors to pursue credible voter fraud cases before election results are certified. 

Also on that day, O’Keefe tweeted a reward of up to $25,000 for “first hand election fraud tips.”

Then, however, things began to shift. 

On Tuesday, November 10, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform tweeted that Hopkins had “recanted his allegations”:

The Washington Post reported that Hopkins recanted his claims in an interview with investigators from the U.S. Postal Service’s Office of Inspector General. He also signed a new affidavit taking back his previous claims, according to the Post report.

In a video published later that night, though, Hopkins said: “I’m here to say that I did not recant my statements, that did not happen.”

Trump shared this video of Hopkins and called him a “brave patriot.”

On Wednesday, November 11, Project Veritas shared the two-hour recording of Hopkins’ interview with federal investigators. Hopkins tells an investigator that his allegations were based on his “assumption” of what he heard in the postal facility on November 5. He goes on to say that he “didn’t specially hear the whole story” and that he “could’ve missed a lot of it.” Hopkins also said he never heard the word “backdate” used in the snippets of conversation he overheard in the postal facility. Hopkins tells the investigators toward the end of the interview that he had been recording the investigation.  

When asked whether he would still swear to the claims in his original affidavit, which allege that Postmaster Weisenbach “directed” Hopkins and his co-workers to “pick up ballots after Election Day and provide them to him ” and that “Weisenbach was backdating the postmarks on the ballots,” Hopkins, responded, “At this point, no.”

During his interview, Hopkins agreed to sign a new affidavit, which according to the Washington Post: “replaced many of his factual assertions with statements couched as his ‘assumptions’ or ‘impressions,’ according to the recording.”

O’Keefe, however, tweeted that the audio recording was evidence of a “Coercive Interrogation of Military Veteran and @USPS #BackDateGate Whistleblower Richard Hopkins by Federal Agents He Believed Were There To Help Him.”

In the November 11 video, Hopkins also said that federal investigators were “grilling the hell out of me,” and that he felt “kind of pissed” and had gotten “played.” He also said he was put on unpaid leave from the Postal Service.

Project Veritas has a history of promoting fraudulent claims. In 2017, for example,  the Washington Post exposed an attempted “undercover sting operation” by O’Keefe and Project Veritas in an effort to discredit the newspaper. The group attempted to push a fake accusation against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore. A woman with ties to Project Veritas told the Post that Moore impregnated her when she was 15 and helped her get an abortion. These were false claims. After the Washington Post interviewed the woman, who identified herself as Jaime Phillips, they did some digging into her background and found a number of discrepancies about her employment history and caught her in an apparent lie about being hired by The Daily Caller. When the Post asked her about those discrepancies, she said she did not want to pursue the story.

In September of this year, Project Veritas released a video claiming that Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar was involved in a voter fraud scheme, described by the organization as a “cash-for-ballots voter fraud scheme.” These claims, however, were unsubstantiated. In early October, KMSP-TV published an exclusive interview with one of the main subjects of this Project Veritas’ voter fraud video, Liban Osman, who said he was offered $10,000 by a man working for Project Veritas, to “harvest” ballots for Omar. Project Veritas denied offering Osman $10,000.  Osman claimed that two Snapchat videos he posted while (legally) collecting ballots were edited deceptively and that he “walked away” when Omar Jamal offered him money.

In an email to The Dispatch Fact Check, a spokesperson for the office of U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General said that “The U.S. Postal Service Office of Inspector General does not comment on ongoing matters.”

A review of ballots from the Erie Times-News puts Hopkins’ allegations further into question. 

Last Tuesday, November 10, the Erie Times-News reported that they reviewed 129 mail-in ballots that were postmarked for Election Day but arrived after November 3. The Erie Times-News reported that “of those 129 ballots, only two postmarked Nov. 3 were processed through the Erie facility.”  

Photograph by Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle/Getty Images.

Khaya Himmelman is a fact checker for The Dispatch. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School and Barnard College.