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Anti-Abortion Activists Face Felony Charges After Planned Parenthood Smear Campaign

Imani Gandy

The anti-choice front group's discredited smear campaign triggered a string of GOP efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and stoked violence against abortion care providers.

Update, March 29, 5:44 p.m.: Hours after the felony charges were filed against Daleiden, he suffered a loss in his litigation with the National Abortion Federation (NAF). A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court order blocking Daleiden and CMP from releasing any further recordings they obtained at NAF’s educational meetings. Specifically, the court noted that the district court’s finding that the tapes contain no evidence of criminal activity was supported by “substantial evidence.”

A California judge this week issued a warrant for the arrest of the anti-abortion activists who launched a smear campaign against Planned Parenthood in July 2015, falsely accusing the health-care organization of trafficking in the black market sale of “fetal body parts.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office charged David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt of the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) with 15 felonies: 14 counts of unlawfully recording people without their permission and one count of conspiracy to invade privacy stemming from their covert recordings of Planned Parenthood staffers and officials.

CMP began publishing videos in July 2015 that featured actors posing as officers of a fake tissue procurement company Daleiden created, called BioMax. In the videos, the actors appear to be haggling with Planned Parenthood officials about the cost of purchasing fetal tissue—or, as CMP put it, “baby parts.”

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The widely discredited videos ignited a firestorm, triggering a string of Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and stoking violence against abortion care providers.

In response to CMP’s videos, GOP legislators in more than a dozen states launched investigations into or tried to defund Planned Parenthood affiliates. The investigations showed no wrongdoing on the part of the health-care organization. Republicans in states like Arkansas, Kansas, and Utah had their attempts to defund Planned Parenthood blocked by federal court order.

The felony charges in California mark the second time those involved in the attack videos have been criminally charged.

A grand jury in Houston indicted Daleiden and Merritt in January 2016 on charges of felony tampering with a governmental record. The grand jury also charged them with a misdemeanor count related to the purchase or sale of human organs.

Those charges were later dropped.

Becerra, who replaced Kamala Harris as California’s attorney general in January, said his office “will not tolerate the criminal recording of confidential conversations,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“The right to privacy is a cornerstone of California’s Constitution, and a right that is foundational in a free democratic society,” Becerra said.

An affidavit filed by Brian Cardwell, a special agent with the California Department of Justice, attached to the criminal complaint filed by Becerra’s office in San Francisco Superior Court, lays out the facts of the anti-choice front group’s video operation. The affidavit states that the California Department of Justice received a request to investigate whether Daleiden, CMP, or any co-conspirators broke California laws regarding the surreptitious audio and video recordings of health-care and biomedical services employees. California DOJ investigators found that Daleiden had created a phony fetal tissue procurement company, BioMax Procurement Services, for the purpose of gaining access to private conferences hosted by Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation (NAF).

The pair of anti-abortion activists used BioMax to set up meetings with the health-care providers—none of whom are named in the affidavit, presumably to protect their privacy—in restaurants in California.

The affidavit alleges that Daleiden and Merritt used fake California driver’s licenses and created the fake tissue procurement company to infiltrate the NAF’s April 2014 conference in San Francisco. At the conference, Daleiden and Merritt posed as exhibitors Robert Sarkis and Susan Tennenbaum and covertly recorded conference speakers and attendees.

In the affidavit, Cardwell concludes that there is probable cause to believe that Daleiden and Merritt “entered into an agreement to create a fictitious business for the sole purpose of gaining access to individuals employed in the health care and biomedical research industry to surreptitiously record private meetings in violation of Penal Code section 182/632, a felony.”

In addition, Cardwell asserts that there is probable cause to believe that the two anti-abortion activists “on 14 separate occasions in the counties of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and El Dorado, did covertly record confidential conversations with individuals who had an expectation of privacy in their conversation in violation of California Penal Code 632(a), a felony.”

Daleiden released a statement calling the felony charges “fake news.”

“The bogus charges from Planned Parenthood’s political cronies are fake news,” the statement said. “We look forward to showing the entire world what is on our yet-unreleased video tapes of Planned Parenthood’s criminal baby body parts enterprise, in vindication of the First Amendment rights of all.”

Daleiden and his organization are embroiled in lawsuits stemming from the attack video controversy. Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit last year in a California federal court against Daleiden and CMP. The complaint alleges that Daleiden and others used aliases, obtained fake government IDs, recorded conversations without consent, and formed a bogus tissue procurement company to infiltrate private medical conferences and health-care centers.

The lawsuit calls CMP “a complex criminal enterprise conceived and executed by anti-abortion extremists.”

Daleiden and CMP are facing similar charges from NAF, which filed its own lawsuit against the anti-choice activists in July 2015. NAF has successfully blocked the publication of any additional CMP footage recorded at NAF’s private events.

CMP’s heavily edited videos sparked a wave of violence against abortion clinics and the abortion providers named in the videos. Robert Lewis Dear Jr. was arrested in November 2015 for opening fire at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood facility, a siege that left three dead. Dear told investigating officers he was “a warrior for the babies” because Planned Parenthood was “selling baby parts.

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