Investigations Law and Policy

Anti-Choice Lawyer Harold Cassidy Owed Millions in Taxes and Debts, Records Indicate

Sharona Coutts

It's "ironic," explained state Rep. Peggy Gibson. Harold Cassidy, a lawyer and self-style anti-choice crusader, is “invasive of women’s private affairs, and then he says his affairs are private, when women have no right to privacy."

With research by Imani Gandy.

Harold Cassidy isn’t afraid to cast judgment when it comes to women’s rights.

The lawyer and self-styled anti-choice crusader calls surrogacy a “terrible practice” that “shouldn’t even be considered by rational people,” and says abortion is an “experiment,” that “society” doesn’t understand—least of all, women.

“What the women of this country have been told is that they’re exercising a right,” Cassidy said in an unattributed television interview that is posted to his New Jersey law firm’s website. “They’re not exercising a right. They’re waiving the most important right they have.”

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In Cassidy’s view, that “right” is connected to what he sees as an intrinsic bond between a woman and her children, especially her fetus. “Really there is no chance of having an informed, voluntary waiver of this fundamental right until the baby is born,” Cassidy said in that TV interview.

By his own account, Cassidy has played a decades-long role in shaping abortion laws throughout the United States.

“Beginning in the mid 1980’s, I have been consulted by legislators in many states,” he wrote in an eight-page statement to Rewire.

Nowhere has that influence been more pronounced than in South Dakota, where Cassidy has advised legislators on some of the country’s most restrictive abortion laws, and has represented anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers in litigation.

New information obtained by Rewire raises questions about Cassidy’s credentials to assert his moral authority over the women he says he wants to “protect.”

A review of public documents discloses that Cassidy and his wife, Randee, racked up millions of dollars in unpaid taxes and debts beginning in the late 1980s.

Despite multiple requests over nearly two months, Cassidy declined to explain how he and Randee amassed these debts, or to provide more detail on the individual filings or proceedings.

In our review of the documents, Rewire attempted to remove any duplications. The figures contained in this report are based purely on publicly available information.

According to documents, in June 2006, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sought nearly $1.6 million in unpaid taxes, penalties, and interest from the couple after they failed to fully pay federal taxes beginning in 1986 until the early 2000s, with the exception of 1987.

It’s not just the federal government that resorted to legal proceedings to recoup unpaid debts from Cassidy, public documents show.

The State of New Jersey lodged up to eight filings against Cassidy between March 1989 and August 2013, for what appears to be a total of $200,212 in unpaid taxes, interest, and penalties. (Each of these filings was made on a different date, and has a different case ID code.)

Private individuals and organizations have also had to rely on the courts to force Cassidy to pay his debts, the documents show.

For instance, in 2010, an entity listed as “Pope John XXIII Regional Cath” won a civil judgment against Cassidy for $4,632. There is a Catholic high school called Pope John XXIII Regional High School located in Sparta Township, a 90-minute drive from Ocean Township, New Jersey, where the Cassidys live, according to the most recent public documents. A school official told Rewire that he was unable to confirm whether the school had sued Cassidy, and Cassidy did not answer our specific question on this point.

In response to multiple requests for more details on these judgments and liens, Cassidy provided the following comments, as part of the eight-page response:

The amount you claim I owe is incorrect and there is no way for you to know how much I paid, or how many hundreds of thousands of dollars I paid on those taxes with the sale of assets. Nor, is there any reliable way for you to know that, in fact, virtually all of my other debt is paid off.

In a later email, Cassidy added, “The three judgments you identified had been paid off long ago (whether or not you can find them discharged of record),” but he did not clarify which judgments he was referring to.

Upon learning of Cassidy’s financial track record, South Dakota Rep. Peggy Gibson (D-Huron) called the attorney a “hypocrite.”

“He’s so financially irresponsible and yet he’s supposed to be this big ‘savior’ of women,” Gibson said. “He can’t manage his own affairs. Why would he be able to manage the affairs of South Dakota women, and their most private affairs—their health care and their reproductive decisions?”

State Sen. Angie Buhl O’Donnell (D-Sioux Falls) said it was “unfortunate” that Cassidy had such influence in the state.

“We, as a state, have bought everything that this guy has told us on how to shape policy, about how women should live their lives, when he could clearly use some advice on that front himself,” she said.

Telling Women They Can Never “Choose” Abortion

Though relatively unknown on the national political scene, Cassidy has had an outsized impact on framing the national debate over abortion.

For decades, the New Jersey lawyer has been honing legal arguments that focus less on a woman’s fetus, and more on women themselves, arguing that women suffer grievous psychological effects after undergoing an abortion.

Cassidy has consistently argued that a woman’s relationship with her children—including a fetus in the earliest stages of development—is “one of the greatest interests a woman possesses in all of life,” regardless of whether the particular woman in question agrees with him.

And because, as Cassidy sees it, that “interest” is so important, preserving it amounts to a constitutional right that the state can protect.

That’s legalese for saying that, in Cassidy’s view, states can encroach upon, or even ban, abortion, because of their interest in protecting the relationship between the woman and the fetus.

Cassidy’s ideas have caught on. The anti-choice group Americans United for Life said earlier this year that it is now focusing on model bills that purport to protect women from the dangers of abortion. Many of the regulations that require clinics to have wider hallways, insist that abortion providers maintain admitting privileges at certain hospitals, and force doctors to perform medically unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds on women seeking abortions, are couched in “woman-protective” terms. The intent, however, remains the same: to end all forms of abortion care in the United States.

Many of the nation’s most extreme anti-choice laws have been proposed, and in some cases passed, in South Dakota, where Cassidy was last listed as a lobbyist in 2005, according to the secretary of state’s website.

A 2011 profile in Mother Jones detailed how Cassidy influenced the state legislature’s effort to enact an outright abortion ban in 2004:

The new text was focused more on the mother—and Cassidy’s fingerprints were evident throughout: “The state has a duty to protect the pregnant mother’s fundamental interest in her relationship with her unborn child,” it stated, adding that abortion creates a “significant risk” of severe depression, suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorders. It was the most prominent platform the “abortion hurts women” argument, and Cassidy, had ever had.

The bill, the first of a series of unsuccessful attempts by South Dakota legislators to ban abortion, was vetoed by the governor. (Two subsequent attempts were shot down at the ballot box.) But pro-life legislators were impressed by the gut-wrenching testimony Cassidy had arranged. In 2005, they created a task force to study abortion’s harmful effects. Cassidy was again called in to help, and the task force published a lengthy report citing the stories of his witnesses and recommending that abortion be banned. It was a huge moment for Cassidy and his allies: For the first time, sketchy findings about abortion’s emotional harm to women had a state’s official imprimatur.

In 2012, Cassidy had a significant win when the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit upheld provisions of a different law that requires doctors to tell women seeking abortions that there are “known medical risks of the procedure and statistically significant risk factors,” specifically, “increased risk of suicide ideation and suicide,” even though the medical consensus is that such claims are false, as Judge Diana E. Murphy noted in her dissent.

Today, Cassidy is representing two South Dakota crisis pregnancy centers—known as “pregnancy help centers” in that state—in litigation over provisions of a 2011 law that requires women to go for “counseling” at the explicitly anti-choice centers, as a condition of accessing an abortion.

The case, Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota v. Daugaard, remains in early stages. Because that litigation is ongoing, neither Cassidy nor the plaintiffs—Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota—could comment on the case.

Cassidy downplayed the influence of his personal beliefs on the work he does in South Dakota.

“In the case of South Dakota, the pro-life policies originate in the state with its people and the legislators elected to represent them,” Cassidy wrote in his statement to Rewire. “Any lawyer who is consulted, such as myself, only lends his expertise to help the people of the state and their elected representatives to successfully achieve their objectives.”

“South Dakota is a pro-life state. The legislature is pro-life, reflecting the values of the voting public.”

In reality, South Dakotans have twice rejected bills that would have banned abortion in their state.

In November 2006, voters rejected a ban that had been supported by the legislature, using a legal mechanism that South Dakota shares with many states, which enables citizens to initiate or vote down laws by collecting enough signatures to have the laws placed on a ballot.

Again in 2008, South Dakotans voted against another sweeping ban that would have placed criminal penalties on doctors who performed abortions except in the case of rape, incest, or to protect a woman’s health.

Cassidy Says Business Affairs Are Private

If Cassidy was coy in giving Rewire information about his activities in South Dakota, he was even less forthcoming about his own financial track record.

We obtained court documents related to bankruptcy proceedings begun in July 2005. A bankruptcy “disclosure statement” signed by Harold and Randee Cassidy that month put the couple’s total debt at more than $2.18 million, with assets of $779,710. The debt included just under $121,213 owed to New Jersey.

In a 2007 filing, Cassidy noted that the IRS had demanded nearly $1.59 million in unpaid taxes, penalties, and interest in June 2006.

But the documents show that Cassidy was optimistic about his prospects of paying off his debts. In an exhibit to the couple’s “plan of reorganization,” lodged on the same date as the disclosure statement, Cassidy said he expected a net pre-tax income of $272,400 from his law firm for the last six months of 2005, and an additional $588,500 in the following two years.

“To cover contingencies, I would list my projected income before taxes as $360,000.00 to $400,000.00,” he wrote.

Yet, records show that the Cassidys continued their pattern of failing to pay debts. In September 2010, a New Jersey legal support services company sought $11,640 from Cassidy and his firm. And in July 2012, an entity called State Shorthand Reporting obtained a judgment for $3,227 against Cassidy. The State of New Jersey lodged additional claims as well.

Deliberate failure to pay income tax can in some instances lead to professional discipline against attorneys. However Barbara Cristofaro, a spokesperson for the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics, told Rewire that her office has never disciplined Cassidy, and that he has remained current on his annual registration fees to practice law in that state.

Rewire spent weeks negotiating the terms of a possible on-the-record interview with Cassidy, in order to fully understand why he had racked up bankruptcies and dozens of judgments and liens and had failed to pay debts ranging from thousands of dollars down to a few hundred, to companies that appear to have transcribed court proceedings for him, as well as to a department store, and, it seems, to a New Jersey Catholic high school.

Cassidy ultimately declined to speak with Rewire on the record.

He did, however, allude to possible reason for his financial travails, in the written response he provided.

“Quite frankly, my financial affairs are none of the business of the abortion industry and Rewire,” he wrote. “Whether I am a poor businessman, or because decades of pro bono work has forced me to struggle financially, is completely irrelevant to the moral strength of my legal work, and certainly irrelevant to the moral authority of the clients I serve.”

Cassidy elaborated this idea:

Even in the case of highly regarded public servants whose public works are greatly admired, their personal indebtedness and the poor business judgment which usually accompanies it, never diminishes their moral authority on the big moral issues of their day.

For instance, Presidents Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley, all filed bankruptcies. While they may have been financially bankrupt, they were anything but morally bankrupt.

State Rep. Gibson said she found Cassidy’s statements “ironic.”

“He’s invasive of women’s private affairs, and then he says his affairs are private, when women have no right to privacy,” she said.

“It’s amazing that he would compare himself to these figures of American history who have done so many lasting, good things for our country.”

More Anti-Choice Bills Proposed in South Dakota

Another crop of anti-choice bills has already been introduced in South Dakota this year, including measures that would prohibit sex-selective abortions, prevent centers that provide either adoption or abortion from registering as “pregnancy help centers,” and provide medical care for “certain unborn children.”

Cassidy refused to say whether he’d had any involvement in those bills, but when Rewire asked Cassidy whether he was linked with two other bills—which would place civil and criminal penalties on anyone who performed an abortion due to Down syndrome, and another that would criminalize some methods of surgical abortion—we received an email from one of his colleagues saying, “I absolutely positively did not. They are ridiculous bills.”

The colleague then followed up with an email that said, “Just so you are aware, the characterization of the bills as ridiculous in my previous email is mine, not Mr. Cassidy’s. He had nothing to do with either of those bills.”

Farce aside, state legislators have condemned Cassidy’s continued activity in South Dakota, especially in light of his questionable financial track record.

“It’s a disgusting situation that he comes out here and interferes in South Dakota’s legal system, trying to ‘save women,’ when he can’t manage his own affairs,” Gibson said. “Harold should stay in New Jersey and manage his own affairs.”

News Abortion

Texas Pro-Choice Advocates Push Back Against State’s Anti-Choice Pamphlet

Teddy Wilson

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated since 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature.

Reproductive rights advocates are calling for changes to information forced on pregnant people seeking abortion services, thanks to a Texas mandate.

Texas lawmakers passed the Texas Woman’s Right to Know Act in 2003, which requires abortion providers to inform pregnant people of the medical risks associated with abortion care, as well as the probable gestational age of the fetus and the medical risks of carrying a pregnancy to term.

The “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, published by the state, has not been updated or revised since it was first made public in 2003. The pamphlet includes the medically dubious link between abortion care and breast cancer, among other medical inaccuracies common in anti-choice literature. 

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) in June published a revised draft version of the pamphlet. The draft version of “A Woman’s Right to Know” was published online, and proposed revisions are available for public comment until Friday.

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John Seago, spokesperson for the anti-choice Texas Right to Life, told KUT that the pamphlet was created so pregnant people have accurate information before they consent to receiving abortion care.

“This is a booklet that’s not going to be put in the hands of experts, it’s not going to be put in the hands of OB-GYNs or scientists–it’s going to be put in the hands of women who will range in education, will range in background, and we want this booklet to be user-friendly enough that anyone can read this booklet and be informed,” he said.

Reproductive rights advocates charge that the information in the pamphlet presented an anti-abortion bias and includes factually incorrect information.

More than 34 percent of the information found in the previous version of the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet was medically inaccurate, according to a study by a Rutgers University research team.

State lawmakers and activists held a press conference Wednesday outside the DSHS offices in Austin and delivered nearly 5,000 Texans’ comments to the agency.  

Kryston Skinner, an organizer with the Texas Equal Access Fund, spoke during the press conference about her experience having an abortion in Texas, and how the state-mandated pamphlet made her feel stigmatized.

Skinner told Rewire that the pamphlet “causes fear” in pregnant people who are unaware that the pamphlet is rife with misinformation. “It’s obviously a deterrent,” Skinner said. “There is no other reason for the state to force a medical professional to provide misinformation to their patients.”

State Rep. Donna Howard (D-Austin) said in a statement that the pamphlet is the “latest shameful example” of Texas lawmakers playing politics with reproductive health care. “As a former registered nurse, I find it outrageous that the state requires health professionals to provide misleading and coercive information to patients,” Howard said.

Howard, vice chair of the Texas House Women’s Health Caucus, vowed to propose legislation that would rid the booklet of its many inaccuracies if DSHS fails to take the thousands of comments into account, according to the Austin Chronicle

Lawmakers in several states have passed laws mandating that states provide written materials to pregnant people seeking abortion services. These so-called informed consent laws often require that the material include inaccurate or misleading information pushed by legislators and organizations that oppose legal abortion care. 

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) sent a letter to DSHS that said the organization has “significant concerns with some of the material and how it is presented.”

Among the most controversial statements made in the pamphlet is the claim that “doctors and scientists are actively studying the complex biology of breast cancer to understand whether abortion may affect the risk of breast cancer.”

Texas Right to Life said in a statement that the organization wants the DSHS include “stronger language” about the supposed correlation between abortion and breast cancer. The organization wants the pamphlet to explicitly cite “the numerous studies that indicate undergoing an elective abortion contributes to the incidence of breast cancer in women.”

Rep. Sarah Davis (R-West University Place) said in a statement that the state should provide the “most accurate science available” to pregnant people seeking an abortion. “As a breast cancer survivor, I am disappointed that DSHS has published revisions to the ‘A Woman’s Right to Know’ booklet that remain scientifically and medically inaccurate,” Davis said.

The link between abortion and cancer has been repeatedly debunked by scientific research.

“Scientific research studies have not found a cause-and-effect relationship between abortion and breast cancer,” according to the American Cancer Society.

A report by the National Cancer Institute explains, “having an abortion or miscarriage does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.”

DSHS spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Texas Tribune that the original booklet was written by a group of agency officials, legislators and public health and medical professionals.

“We carefully considered medical and scientific information when updating the draft booklet,” Williams said.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open the Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

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Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.