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Komen vice president resigns as details emerge on Planned Parenthood debate

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The Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation faced additional fallout Tuesday from its decision to restore funding to Planned Parenthood as a top official resigned and details emerged about the contentious internal discussions that led to the controversy.

Even as the leading fundraiser in the fight against breast cancer struggled to repair damage to its name after its back-and-forth last week on Planned Parenthood, the resignation of Karen Handel drew attention back to the highly charged issue of whether Komen acted under pressure from antiabortion groups.

Before the Komen board unanimously agreed to pull funding for Planned Parenthood last year, an internal staff review and a board subcommittee had concluded the opposite, that funding should be maintained, according to a former Komen employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation. Handel, who was senior vice president for public policy, objected to those decisions.

It’s not clear why the full board did not follow the recommendations when it voted unanimously at a November meeting to take actions that would bar funding to Planned Parenthood and what role Handel played. Several former Komen employees have said that Handel was a driving force behind the decision.

Handel’s role has been the focus of intense speculation, but she has not commented publicly until now. In her resignation letter and in comments to reporters Tuesday, Handel said she had supported the initial decision to pull funding and that the policy change was thoroughly vetted at every level within the organization.

On Friday, after a torrent of public reaction, Komen reversed course. Komen will no longer bar organizations that are under government investigation from applying for grants. As a result, Planned Parenthood, which is the focus of a House probe over whether it used federal funds to pay for abortions, will once again be eligible to apply.

Komen founder and CEO Nancy Brinker said the foundation’s decisions were not based on political reasons and were not intended to specifically penalize Planned Parenthood.

In her resignation letter, Handel noted that the board fully supported the decision.

The Board specifically discussed various issues, including the need to protect our mission by ensuring we were not distracted or negatively affected by any other organization’s real or perceived challenges,” she wrote. She added: “No objections were made to moving forward.”

She also wrote: “I am deeply disappointed by the gross mischaracterization of this strategy, its rationale, and my involvement in it. I openly acknowledge my role in the matter and continue to believe our decision was the best one for Komen’s future and the women we serve.”

In an interview Tuesday with Fox News, Handel added: “I clearly acknowledge that I was involved in the process, but to suggest that I had the sole authority is just absurd.” She said she still believes that Komen should defund Planned Parenthood.

During an unsuccessful campaign for governor of Georgia in 2010, Handel ran on a platform that included defunding Planned Parenthood. Before she ran for governor, Handel had been secretary of state in Georgia and was viewed as a centrist Republican. Conservative groups attacked Handel for not supporting antiabortion policies strongly enough.

The Komen foundation provides about $93 million a year to community organizations; 19 of 122 Komen affiliates gave grants totaling about $680,000 to local Planned Parenthood organizations last year. The grants were only for breast health services.

The foundation has long been under pressure from antiabortion supporters and donors for its affiliation with Planned Parenthood, Komen officials have said.

The issue took on much greater visibility after Handel was hired, first as a consultant in January 2011, then as senior vice president for public policy, according to former Komen employees.

“Questions about the issue of our involvement with Planned Parenthood significantly ramped up at the time Komen decided to hire Karen,” said John Hammerly, a former senior communications advisor at Komen who left the foundation last summer after a reorganization eliminated his position.

“The requests were from senior leadership, and they increased in terms of asking more detailed questions about the individual affiliates, the amount of each grant, the exact nature of what we were funding and when they were set to expire.”

Last spring, the board formed a three-member subcommittee to look into Planned Parenthood funding, according to a former Komen employee.

For the board, Komen staff members discussed scenarios involving cutting off part or all of the funding or maintaining the status quo, said Hammerly and other former employees.

Participants concluded that cutting off all funds would endanger low-income women who depended on the service. A partial cutoff would only compromise the integrity of the grants process and not be enough to satisfy critics, participants said. Staff members decided to recommend continued funding for Planned Parenthood.

“It was our recommendation that we stay the course,” Hammerly said. “We thought there could also be significant concern, both from a public standpoint and an affiliate standpoint, if we ceased support.”

In early April, the board subcommittee held a conference call that included three Komen staff members, including Handel. Handel argued for defunding Planned Parenthood. Staff member Mollie Williams, who oversaw Komen’s community grants, argued to maintain funding. Leslie Aun, a communications official, warned of negative publicity if funding were cut off, according to a former Komen employee.

The consensus of the board subcommittee was to keep the funding, the former employee said.

Board member John D. Raffaelli, who was on the subcommittee, had said he was not aware of any internal staff recommendations to keep the funding and that Handel was not involved in the decision.

He did not respond to e-mails and telephone calls Tuesday asking for comment.

Aun also declined to comment.

Williams, who resigned the day after the November board meeting, has declined to elaborate to honor a confidentiality pledge to her former employer. She has said that it would be a “mistake for any organization to bow to political pressure and compromise its mission.”

In the months before the November board meeting, Komen officials said there was increased visibility around Planned Parenthood. In September, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) announced a probe into whether the organization has illegally used federal funds to pay for abortions.

That month, Komen affiliates in Ohio were coming under criticism by Catholic bishops for the Planned Parenthood affiliation, former employees said.

On Dec. 16, Komen President Elizabeth Thompson called Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards to notify her of the changes to their granting guidelines, a Planned Parenthood spokesman said.

Staff writer N.C. Aizenman and staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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