In a surprise move, Texas authorities leveled criminal charges against the antiabortion activists behind a series of undercover videos targeting Planned Parenthood, which sparked fiery debate last year nationwide and on Capitol Hill.
Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, a Republican, 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 his employees, was indicted on a charge of tampering with a governmental record. Arrest warrants have been issued for the activists, with a bond amount of $10,000. They can be arrested in any state.
A grand jury, meanwhile, cleared Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast of any wrongdoing.
By way of background, Daleiden’s team posed as biomedical employees and wore body cameras to secretly shoot video of Planned Parenthood clinics and employees. They recorded officials discussing the logistics of donating fetal tissue from abortions to researchers, who use human organs to develop new medications.
Daleiden claimed the footage proved Planned Parenthood was illegally selling fetal tissue for profit — a charge the organization has denied. Although Planned Parenthood has apologized for the casual tone its employees took in the videos, the organization said it will continue to donate tissue to scientists. It will no longer, however, collect fees to cover the cost of transferring the tissue, which ranges between $25 to $50 per donation.
Initially, the grand jury set out to investigate Planned Parenthood. But on Monday, it instead returned charges against Daleiden. Harris County prosecutors declined to explain the charges. But Josh Schaffer, an attorney for Planned Parenthood in Houston, says this is what it all means:
Charge: Tampering with a governmental record
Daleiden has admitted to putting together a fake company he dubbed Biomax Procurement Services. His group assumed aliases and claimed to provide fetal tissue to researchers.
The fake IDs used by Daleiden and Merritt, which look like California driver’s licenses, triggered the felony charge, Schaffer said.
The IDs appeared in Harris County court documents. Daleiden went by Robert Sarkis.
Merritt operated under the name Susan Tennenbaum.
They used the cards to get into a Planned Parenthood center in Houston, Schaffer said, which prompted state officials to open an investigation into the clinic after the video was released in August.
“They presented those to security at the Planned Parenthood office to gain access to the facility for the meeting they’d scheduled with the intent to defraud or harm Planned Parenthood,” he said. “They secretly videotaped meetings and edited the tapes to be taken out of context.”
Intent to cause harm is what elevated the possession of fake IDs to a more serious felony charge than, say, a 16-year-old trying to buy a six-pack would receive, Schaffer said. Under Texas law, the charge carries a penalty of two to 20 years in prison.
Charge: Attempting to buy human tissue
Using his false identity, Daleiden emailed Planned Parenthood in June, asking to buy fetal tissue for $1,600, Schaffer said.
The email was included in court evidence, the lawyer said, but cannot be released to the public during an active case. Whether Daleiden actually intended to buy tissue doesn’t matter in the eyes of Texas law. The inquiry alone could have spurred the misdemeanor charge.
Authorities don’t need to see evidence of a deal or interest from another party to pursue the charge. Planned Parenthood, Schaffer said, never responded to Daleiden’s email.
“He probably didn’t know he was breaking the law,” Schaffer added.
The charge is a misdemeanor, which carries a penalty of up to one year in county jail.
Shortly after the charges were announced, Steven Ertelt, the editor of LifeNews.com, sent out a petition asking people to “help David Daleiden.”
“Instead of prosecuting Planned Parenthood for selling aborted baby parts, Daleiden was indicted for buying them,” he wrote. “If convicted, Daleiden faces 20 years in prison while Planned Parenthood officials face no legal consequences for their actions.”
In a statement 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.”
Planned Parenthood applauded the grand jury’s decision and said Daleiden’s work used deceptive edits to unfairly implicate them in a crime.
“These antiabortion 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.”
The videos reinvigorated the debate over the use of fetal tissue procured through abortions and became the subject of a Republican-led investigation into Planned Parenthood on Capitol Hill. Republican presidential candidates have also seized on the footage, calling for Congress to defund the organization, while Democratic contenders argue that women’s health and access to abortion should be protected.
Several states — including Florida, Indiana, Missouri and Washington — opened investigations into Planned Parenthood last year but found no evidence the organization sold tissue for profit. None sought criminal charges against the creators of the viral videos, which garnered millions of views and provided fodder for Republicans who oppose abortion.
*A previous version of this article missed the “n” in Steven Ertelt’s name.