Grand jury indicts producers of Planned Parenthood videos

Anti-abortion activists face felony charge of tampering with a governmental record

By Paul J. Weber
Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — A grand jury has indicted two anti-abortion activists who made undercover videos alleging Planned Parenthood illegally sold fetal tissue to researchers for a profit, and said the abortion provider committed no wrong.

The grand jury in Houston, which investigated Planned Parenthood after the Center for Medical Progress released its undercover footage last year, indicted the center’s founder and another activist on Monday — the first criminal charges against anyone in the anti-abortion group since the videos surfaced last year.

The videos provoked outrage among Republican leaders nationwide and prompted investigations by Republican-led committees in Congress and by GOP-led state governments. Planned Parenthood officials have denied any wrongdoing and say the videos are misleading.

Center for Medical Progress CEO David Daleiden and activist Sandra Merritt each face a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Daleiden also faces a misdemeanor count related to purchasing human organs.

The center’s footage from the Planned Parenthood clinic in Houston showed people pretending to be from a company called BioMax that procures fetal tissue for research touring the facility. Planned Parenthood has said that the fake company sent an agreement offering to pay the “astronomical amount” of $1,600 for organs from a fetus. The clinic said it never entered into the agreement and ceased contact with BioMax because it was “disturbed” by the overtures.

In a statement announcing the indictment, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson did not provide details on the charges, including which records were allegedly tampered with. Her office said it could not disclose more information, and it was unclear when the indictments would be made public.

“We were called upon to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast,” Anderson, an elected Republican, said in her statement. “As I stated at the outset of this investigation, we must go where the evidence leads us.”

Daleiden issued a statement saying his group “uses the same undercover techniques” as investigative journalists and follows all applicable laws.

“We respect the processes of the Harris County District Attorney, and note that buying fetal tissue requires a seller as well,” he said.

Planned Parenthood has said a few clinics in two states used to accept legally allowed reimbursement for the costs of providing tissue donated by some of its abortion clients. In October, Planned Parenthood announced that it would no longer accept reimbursement and would cover the costs itself.

The group called Monday’s indictments the latest in a string of victories since the videos were released, saying 11 state investigations have cleared the nation’s largest abortion provider of claims that it profited from fetal tissue donation.

“This is absolutely great news because it is a demonstration of what Planned Parenthood has said from the very beginning: We follow every law and regulation and these anti-abortion activists broke multiple laws to try and spread lies,” said spokeswoman Rochelle Tafolla of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.

The Texas video was the fifth released by the Center for Medical Progress.

Despite the center’s lofty name, public filings suggest only a small number of people are affiliated with the nonprofit, none of whom are scientists or physicians engaged in advancing medical treatments. The people named as its top officers are longtime anti-abortion activists with a history of generating headlines.

Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood sued the center in a California federal court, alleging extensive criminal misconduct. The lawsuit says the center’s videos were the result of numerous illegalities, including making recordings without consent, registering false identities with state agencies and violating nondisclosure agreements.

After the lawsuit was filed, Daleiden told The Associated Press he looked forward to confronting Planned Parenthood in court.
 

A look at the group that made Planned Parenthood videos

The leader of the Center for Medical Progress was indicted Monday in Houston by a grand jury investigating the anti-abortion group’s undercover videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the handling of fetal tissue. Here is some information about the center:

WHAT IS THE CENTER FOR MEDICAL PROGRESS?


The center is a nonprofit organization that described its mission in a 2013 application to the state of California as to “monitor and report on medical ethics and advances.” Public filings show a handful of people associated with the organization are longtime anti-abortion activists. The addresses for the group listed in public filings are postal drops in Sacramento and Irvine, California. Based on its submissions to the IRS, the center took in less than $50,000 in 2014 and thus did not have to disclose its donors. CEO David Daleiden is the only salaried member of the group, receiving $30,000 a year. He is the former director of research for the anti-abortion group Live Action, which is known for using undercover videos to target Planned Parenthood. Daleiden was indicted in Houston on a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record and a misdemeanor count related to purchasing human organs. Another anti-abortion activist, Sandra Merritt, was also indicted on a charge of tampering with a governmental record.

THE UNDERCOVER VIDEOS

The group released a series of graphic videos alleging that Planned Parenthood profited from the sale of fetal tissue — something the abortion provider denies. One video shows officials associated with the Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, which includes Texas. Footage from the clinic in Houston showed people pretending to be from a company called BioMax that procures fetal tissue for research touring the facility. Planned Parenthood has previously said that the fake company sent an agreement offering to pay the “astronomical amount” of $1,600 for organs from a fetus. The clinic said it never entered into the agreement and ceased contact with BioMax because it was “disturbed” by the overtures.

OTHER MEMBERS OF THE GROUP


Troy Newman, listed as the center’s secretary, is president of the Kansas-based anti-abortion group Operation Rescue and has posed as a reporter to record conversations with abortion providers in the past. Albin Rhomberg, the center’s chief financial officer, was arrested in 1991 for disrupting a church service during the inauguration of California Gov. Pete Wilson, an abortion-rights Republican. In 2005, he led an unsuccessful attempt to pass a California ballot measure requiring doctors to notify parents or guardians before performing abortions on minors. Nichole Surkala, who is listed as the center’s contact if it is sued, was convicted in California in 2007 of willful cruelty to her 12-year-old son, according to court papers. Police found she kept a horse and seven dogs in a house in Modesto that was filled with animal feces and rotting produce.

 

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