District Court judge candidate has ties to controversial activist


Highlights

Benjamin Wetmore, candidate for a Hays County state District Court, was an associate of activist James O’Keefe.

Wetmore also represented the nonprofit American Phoenix Foundation, which secretly taped Texas lawmakers.

Public records indicate Wetmore has performed little legal work in Hays County.

On the streets of Boston a decade ago, Benjamin Wetmore and James O’Keefe gathered signatures on a petition seeking to find people who would be willing to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees into their homes.

It was one of many political stunts the conservative activists performed on hidden camera. The Boston stunt, in which the two pretended to be volunteers for the Love Thy Prisoner Campaign, was a precursor for O’Keefe and his fledgling Project Veritas, an outfit that uses undercover video and staged encounters in an attempt to reveal media bias.

O’Keefe would soon be making national news. Wetmore remained largely behind the scenes, and his involvement with O’Keefe waned over the years.

Now Wetmore is running for state District Court judge in Hays County.

Wetmore, a Buda-area resident, is running for 428th District Court judge, a post that has jurisdiction over civil, criminal and family law cases. With no Democrat running, the election will be decided on March 6 in the Republican primary against incumbent Judge Bill Henry.

The winner will be elected to a four-year term, earning roughly $160,000 a year.

Wetmore’s history as a lawyer in Hays County is almost nonexistent, with a search of court records showing him as an attorney on one case in 2015. However, his history as an associate and even a mentor of O’Keefe and later the guerrilla journalism nonprofit American Phoenix Project is well documented.

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Wetmore, 38, has known O’Keefe, the outspoken activist behind the 2009 videos that unraveled the nonprofit community organizing group ACORN, since at least 2004. Wetmore told the American-Statesman that he no longer has a relationship with O’Keefe.

“I haven’t talked to him in a long time,” Wetmore said. “He and I aren’t at terms.”

O’Keefe has referred to Wetmore as a mentor, and Wetmore hired O’Keefe to work at the Leadership Institute in Arlington, Va., after O’Keefe graduated from college. Wetmore said he didn’t consider himself a mentor to O’Keefe, but rather more of an associate.

“I am someone he knew,” Wetmore said.

Wetmore started making waves as a political science and history major at American University, where he started a website blasting the university president’s spending habits.

He later attended law school at Loyola University New Orleans, and in 2010, he housed O’Keefe and three other men who were accused of plotting to tamper with the office phone system of then-Sen. Mary Landrieu. O’Keefe was convicted of a misdemeanor for entering Landrieu’s New Orleans office under false pretenses.

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Later that year, Wetmore also was involved in an apparent setup to embarrass then-CNN investigative correspondent Abbie Boudreau. In that instance, Wetmore had emailed a document indicating how they should “spoof” CNN and Boudreau by luring her onto a boat that would be stocked with Viagra pills, lubricants and pornographic magazines. Though Wetmore never confirmed he wrote the document, it listed its author as “Ben.”

That year, Wetmore also self-published a book called “Getting a Job in Politics, and Keeping It,” in which he said he had worked for various political organization groups, trained more than 2,000 activists and helped start 120 campus publications around the country.

Wetmore’s association with O’Keefe appears to have ended around 2010. But he continued to work with O’Keefe associate Joseph Basel, one of the four men arrested in the New Orleans incident.

Wetmore was counsel for the American Phoenix Foundation, a nonprofit led by Basel that aimed to secretly tape Texas legislators and lobbyists using guerrilla tactics similar to those employed by O’Keefe’s Project Veritas.

RELATED: Donors to Capitol videotaping group include prominent conservatives

According to lobbyist Steven Bresnen, who sued American Phoenix Foundation over its refusal to turn over documents about the nonprofit’s finances, Wetmore appeared to be highly involved with the group. Wetmore represented American Phoenix Foundation in the suit.

“My opinion of Mr. Wetmore as a lawyer is not a high one,” Bresnen told the Statesman. “He has no business being on the bench.”

Bresnen said Wetmore mismanaged the suit from the get-go. He failed to file paperwork on time, filed imperfect motions and accidentally tipped off Bresnen’s lawyers to information that helped his cause.

Bresnen eventually won the lawsuit. Wetmore had withdrawn from the case by that time, telling the court he was no longer in communication with Basel and was no longer being paid, Bresnen said. Basel was eventually held in contempt of court for continuing to refuse to turn over documents about American Phoenix Foundation. The nonprofit has been placed in receivership.

“He botched the case,” Bresnen said. “And because of their history, I think Wetmore is more the kingpin on this deal, because he was a mentor to Basel.”

Wetmore’s GOP primary opponent, Judge Bill Henry, would not comment on any of Wetmore’s background.

“I am working hard to serve our citizens and to protect the constitution and protect our community,” Henry told the Statesman.

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The Texas Bar Association’s website shows Wetmore has been certified to practice law in Texas since 2013. The site lists his practice specialties in criminal, real estate and nonprofit law, which Wetmore confirmed. The address for his practice is a mailbox at a UPS store in Kyle.

A search of public court records in Hays County showed Wetmore has no pending cases. A search of District Court records showed Wetmore listed on only one case, a 2015 misdemeanor that was resolved with a guilty plea in 2017.

While Wetmore answered questions concerning his involvement with O’Keefe and his candidacy, he did not return phone calls or an email on Friday with follow-up questions related to the extent of his legal practice and involvement with the American Phoenix Foundation.

A campaign finance report for Wetmore filed Jan. 15 showed he had received no donations and was funding his campaign with $1,500 of his own money.

When asked last week about whether his background would be an issue in the election, Wetmore said it could be.

“Maybe it is,” he said. “I’m sure you have to weigh everything in someone’s experience. I haven’t heard anyone bring it up. If people want to talk about it, then I’m happy to talk about it.”

Correction: This article has been updated to correctly describe James O’Keefe’s conviction for entering Sen. Mary Landrieu’s office in New Orleans.



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