One day after Texas authorities filed criminal charges against two antiabortion activists behind a series of undercover videos targeting Planned Parenthood, the pair’s lawyer said they plan to leave California for Houston to turn themselves in.
The announcement follows a Harris County grand jury’s indictment of David Daleiden, the director of the Center for Medical Progress, and his employee, Sandra Merritt, on felony charges of tampering with a governmental record. The grand jury, assembled last fall to investigate accusations of misconduct against Planned Parenthood, cleared the organization of all wrongdoing Monday and pinned fault instead on the duo who sparked the inquiry.
The felony charges carry up to 20 years in prison. Daleiden, the highly public face of the Center for Medical Progress, also faces a misdemeanor charge related to purchasing human tissue.
Murphy Klasing, the Houston lawyer representing Daleiden and Merritt, would not say when, exactly, the activists plan to visit the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which has issued warrants for their arrest.
Both Daleiden and Merritt want to book travel plans swiftly, Klasing said. Once in Houston, he said, they will post bond and avoid jail time.
“We don’t want them to get pulled over for rolling a stop sign, get arrested in California and then transported to Houston,” Klasing said.
Last year, the Center for Medical Progress released eight videos that showed Planned Parenthood officials discussing the logistics of collecting and donating fetal tissue from abortions. One showed scenes from a Houston clinic, which prompted officials to launch the investigation in August.
State health officials cited the footage in an October open letter to Planned Parenthood’s Texas affiliates as a reason to cut them off from the state’s Medicaid program. The organization sued the state over the attempt.
In the United States, buying and selling human tissue is against the law. Giving tissue to researchers is legal — scientists at pharmaceutical companies, for example, use tissue to test new medications — but a woman’s voluntary consent for the donation must be obtained before she has an abortion.
Daleiden claimed the footage proved Planned Parenthood was illegally selling fetal tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood repeatedly denied the charge and apologized for the casual tone used by its employees in Daleiden’s footage. The organization, however, stopped collecting fees to cover the cost of donating tissue, which ranged between $25 and $50 per donation.
The Center for Medical Progress called its spotlight on Planned Parenthood “investigative journalism.” Daleiden’s group admitted to posing as employees at a made-up biomedical company, wearing covert body cameras and using fake IDs to enter clinics in Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Baltimore.
The activists didn’t just use footage of Planned Parenthood, though. They encountered a backlash in October for using a photo of a stillborn fetus without permission.
Daleiden, his lawyer said, testified two weeks ago in front of the jurors who indicted him.
Devon Anderson, the district attorney in Harris County, would not elaborate on the charges Monday after announcing them.
Josh Schaffer, a lawyer for Planned Parenthood in Houston, said he believes the tampering charges stemmed from the activist’s use of fake IDs, which resembled California licenses, according to court documents. Under Texas law, he said, using a fake ID is elevated to a more serious felony charge if the accused intends to “defraud” or “do harm to” a person or organization.
Daleiden’s misdemeanor charge, related to buying human tissue, arose from an email he sent Planned Parenthood in June 2015, asking to buy fetal tissue for $1,600, Schaffer said. “It doesn’t matter if he intended to buy it,” Schaffer said, “making the request is illegal, even if an offer isn’t accepted.”
Planned Parenthood, Schaffer said, never responded to that email.
In a Tuesday press call, Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood, condemned the Center for Medical Progress’s actions and applauded the legal system.
“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,” she said. “And I believe this is not the last of the charges they will face.”
On the other side of the aisle, antiabortion groups seized on the fact that a prosecutor in Anderson’s office is a board member of Planned Parenthood, calling it evidence that the indictment was politically motivated.
But Planned Parenthood officials dismissed the criticism, noting that Lauren Reeder, an assistant district attorney, had disclosed the conflict of interest in August. Anderson – a self-described conservative Republican who said on her Facebook page in 2014 she is “pro-life” – issued a statement immediately afterward assuring the public Reeder would have no part in the investigation.
The grand jury’s indictment won’t stop other Texas officials from looking into Planned Parenthood.
In a Monday statement, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said the inspector general of the state’s Health and Human Services Commission and the Texas attorney general’s office. “Nothing about today’s announcement in Harris County impacts the state’s ongoing investigation,” he said. “The State of Texas will continue to protect life, and I will continue to support legislation prohibiting the sale or transfer of fetal tissue.”
Jennifer Mercieca, a professor of American political discourse at Texas A&M University, said she doubts either side will back down in the local or broader debate over Planned Parenthood and abortion.
“In this state, and in this rhetorical environment, there’s so much distrust for every part of the government and every part of the process,” said Mercieca, the author of Founding Fictions. “A politician can appeal to his or her base by saying, ‘Mistakes could have been made. It could have been partisan.”