In a surprise move, a Texas grand jury investigating Planned Parenthood wrapped up on Monday by issuing several indictments not to the women’s healthcare provider, but to two of the anti-abortion activists who had prompted the investigation.
The grand jury, convened by the Harris County district attorney’s office, indicted David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt for tampering with a governmental record, the DA’s office announced. Daleiden received a second indictment under a law prohibiting the purchase and sale of human organs.
Daleiden is the founder of the group, the Center for Medical Progress, that filmed and released a series of sting videos edited so they appeared to show Planned Parenthood employees selling fetal tissue in violation of federal law.
Planned Parenthood denies the accusations, saying it donates fetal tissue to medical research companies at no cost. The only money it has received, it says, has been reimbursement for transportation and storage costs. (Planned Parenthood recently announced that it would no longer accept reimbursements.) In a separate lawsuit, filed earlier this month, Planned Parenthood accused Daleiden and his group in court of “engaging in wire fraud, mail fraud, invasion of privacy, illegal secret recording, and trespassing”.
The accusations in the videos have been disproved, including by a string of state-level investigations that found no wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood. Still, the videos resulted in five separate congressional investigations of Planned Parenthood and unsuccessful efforts by Republicans in Congress to strip the group of some half a billion dollars in federal family planning funds. Conservatives in some half-a-dozen states also attempted to strip the group of hundreds of thousands of dollars of state and federal family planning funds and Medicaid contracts.
In Texas, the indictments conclude a two-month investigation into video taped at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Houston operated by Planned Parenthood of the gulf coast. Daleiden and Merritt introduced themselves as executives at a biomedical research company and presented fake California drivers’ licenses.
The district attorney, Devon Anderson, is a Republican elected to office in 2014. The investigation began at the urging of Republican lieutenant governor Dan Patrick. It ultimately involved Harris County’s DA, the Texas Rangers, and the Houston police department.
“We were called upon to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast,” Anderson said in a statement. “As I stated at the outset of this investigation, we must go where the evidence leads us. All the evidence uncovered in the course of this investigation was presented to the grand jury. I respect their decision on this difficult case.”
Daleiden defended his actions in a statement released on Monday night.
“The Center for Medical Progress uses the same undercover techniques that investigative journalists have used for decades in exercising our first amendment rights to freedom of speech and of the press, and follows all applicable laws,” he said.
“We respect the processes of the Harris County district attorney, and note that buying fetal tissue requires a seller as well. Planned Parenthood still cannot deny the admissions from their leadership about fetal organ sales captured on video for all the world to see.”
Abbott, the Texas governor, said a state investigation of Planned Parenthood would continue unimpeded.
“Nothing about today’s announcement in Harris County impacts the state’s ongoing investigation,” Abbott said in a statement. “The State of Texas will continue to protect life, and I will continue to support legislation prohibiting the sale or transfer of fetal tissue.”
The state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, said: “The fact remains that the videos exposed the horrific nature of abortion and the shameful disregard for human life of the abortion industry. The state’s investigation of Planned Parenthood is ongoing.”
These are not the first legal troubles to face Daleiden and the center. Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit, filed in California, accuses the group of violating the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organization Act.
The center has also been blocked by a federal judge from disclosing video footage of an annual conference held by the National Abortion Federation. NAF’s lawsuit accuses the group of conspiracy to defraud. In December, US district judge William Orricks ordered the Center for Medical Progress to turn over a list of associates, which may include donors, to NAF’s attorneys, although the list remains confidential.
NAF is now asking the court to take action against Daleiden and his group for disclosing video footage of its annual conference containing confidential information to Congressman Jason Chaffetz. Chaffetz, a Republican, leads the House oversight and government reform committee, one of several committees investigating Planned Parenthood.
“As we’ve known all along, David Daleiden is the one who broke the law, not abortion providers,” Vicki Saporta, the president of NAF, said on Monday.
StemExpress, a biotech firm conducting tissue research, won a restraining order against the center in Los Angeles superior court and has vowed to sue the group over invasion of privacy. The firm had ties to Planned Parenthood, and the sting videos caused the company’s CEO to receive online death threats. The restraining order prevents the center from releasing any video footage it took of StemExpress employees.
In a statement on Monday, Eric Ferrero, Planned Parenthood’s vice-president of communications, applauded news of the grand jury indictment.
“These anti-abortion extremists spent three years creating a fake company, creating fake identities, lying, and breaking the law,” he said. “These people broke the law to spread malicious lies about Planned Parenthood in order to advance their extreme anti-abortion political agenda. As the dust settles and the truth comes out, it’s become totally clear that the only people who engaged in wrongdoing are the criminals behind this fraud, and we’re glad they’re being held accountable.”