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Creator of anti-Planned Parenthood videos faces felony charge

A member of the New York Police Department stands outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Manhattan borough of New York on Nov. 28, 2015. (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

A Houston grand jury that was investigating accusations of criminal misconduct against Planned Parenthood on Monday instead indicted the leader of an anti-abortion group that recorded covert videos of the organization’s employees.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said David Daleiden, the director of the Center for Medical Progress, faces a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record and a misdemeanor count related to buying human tissue.

Sandra Merritt, one of Daleiden’s employees, was also indicted on a charge of tampering with a governmental record.

Editor's note: Contains graphic language. The Center for Medical Progress released a video that allegedly shows a Planned Parenthood executive talking about selling fetal organs. (Video: The Center for Medical Progress)

The grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast of any wrongdoing.

“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.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said, however, that the inspector general of the state’s Health and Human Services Commission and the Texas attorney general’s office would continue to investigate Planned Parenthood’s actions. “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 indictment did not reveal how the Center for Medical Process manipulated documents. But earlier this month, Planned Parenthood filed a federal lawsuit against the video creators, asserting the group broke several federal laws in its campaign to defame the health-care centers with mail fraud, invasion of privacy, illegal secret recording and trespassing.

A warrant for Daleiden was issued Monday evening, according to the Harris County District Clerk’s website.

Planned Parenthood announced on Jan. 14 it is suing the Center for Medical Progress, the group responsible for heavily edited and secretly filmed videos claiming the abortion provider illegally sells fetal tissue. Here’s what they want. (Video: The Washington Post)

In a statement issued Monday evening, the Center for Medical Progress said it “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. 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.”

Last year, Daleiden’s group released videos of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the transfer of tissue from aborted fetuses to research laboratories. The organization apologized for the candid language used by staffers but insisted it did not break any laws.

Peddling human fetal tissue is illegal in the United States. Federal regulations also prohibits changing the timing or method of an abortion for the sole purpose of using the tissue in research. Donating the tissue, though, is legal with a woman’s consent.

Daleiden, who went undercover to slip into clinics and shoot the footage, claimed Planned Parenthood sold the tissue for profit — a charge the organization denied. Other activists posed as biotech employees to build relationships with Planned Parenthood employees.

“These anti-abortion extremists spent three years creating a fake company, creating fake identities, lying, and breaking the law,” said Eric Ferrero, vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “When they couldn’t find any improper or illegal activity, they made it up.”

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ordered the investigation after an undercover video shot inside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Houston was released. State health officials cited the footage in an October open letter to the organization’s Texas affiliates as a reason to cut them off the state’s Medicaid program.  Planned Parenthood sued the state over the attempt to block its funding.

The videos reignited a long-standing debate over the use of fetal tissue collected through abortions, fueled efforts seeking to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, re-energized arguments over whether public money should support Planned Parenthood and became the subject of a Republican-led investigation on Capitol Hill.

The footage, which collectively stretched more than 10 hours, also emerged in Republican presidential debates, with candidate Carly Fiorina describing her memory of a scene as “a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking while someone says we have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.”

In November, authorities said Robert Dear, the gunman who admitted killing three people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic, explained his actions with the phrase, “No more baby parts.”

After the first video surfaced in July 2015 and garnered millions of views, Planned Parenthood officials accused Daleiden of leading a crusade similar to those by other groups in years past that tried to mount “stings” targeting Planned Parenthood.

Advocates applauded Monday’s grand jury decision.

“As we’ve known all along, David Daleiden is the one who broke the law, not abortion providers,” Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, said in a statement. “In order to launch his smear campaign, Daleiden engaged in a long-running illegal conspiracy and he should be held accountable for his actions, which have put abortion providers at risk.”

Some disagreed with the move to clear Planned Parenthood, including Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.

“Harvesting human organs is beyond barbaric, it’s unimaginably grotesque and evil,” he said.” And it’s a sick day in America when our government punishes those who expose evil with a smartphone—while accommodating those who perform it with a scalpel.”