Ju­di­cial can­di­date has ties to ac­tivist

Wet­more has done lit­tle le­gal work in Hays County, records show.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Philip Jankowski pjankowski@states­man.com

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 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.

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 il­le­gally talked their way into the of­fice of then-Sen. Mary Lan­drieu and tam­pered with her phone sys­tem. O’Keefe was later con­victed of a mis­de­meanor in the case.

Later that year, Wet­more also was in­volved in an ap­par­ent setup to em­bar­rass thenCNN 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.

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.

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 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.”

Ben­jamin Wet­more will face in­cum­bent Judge Bill Henry.

STEPHEN SPILLMAN / FOR AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN 2014

The Hays County Gov­ern­ment Cen­ter in San Mar­cos houses the 428th Dis­trict Court. The judge’s post will be de­cided in the Repub­li­can pri­mary March 6, when in­cum­bent Bill Henry faces Ben­jamin Wet­more.

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