A Texas grand jury tasked with investigating Planned Parenthood wrapped up on Monday by issuing several indictments — not to the women’s healthcare provider, but to two of the anti-abortion activists who prompted the investigation in the first place.
The Harris County District Attorney’s office in Houston, Texas, announced late Monday that Planned Parenthood had been cleared of wrongdoing in the two-month-long investigation, which was sparked by a deceptive undercover video campaign meant to publicly discredit the healthcare organization.
The grand jury not only vindicated Planned Parenthood, but, in an ironic twist, decided to indict two of the anti-abortion zealots who were involved in making and manipulating the secret recordings that initiated the investigation.
David Daleiden, who founded The Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as a front group for his deceptive actions, and his colleague Sandra Merritt were both issued an indictment for Tampering with a Governmental Record, local ABC affiliate KTRK reports. Daleiden has also been issued an additional indictment for Prohibition of the Purchase and Sale of Human Organs, likely based on his many filmed attempts to negotiate the illicit sale of human fetal tissue.
Under Texas law, an offender violates the Prohibition of the Purchase and Sale of Human Organs if “he knowingly or intentionally offers to buy, offers to sell, acquires, receives, sells, or transfers any human organ for valuable consideration,” according to the Texas District & County Attorneys Association.
“We were called upon to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by Planned Parenthood, Gulf Coast (PPGC),” Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said in a statement, according to the Houston Chronicle. “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.”
According to Anderson (a Republican who was appointed by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry), PPGC was “cleared” of any law-breaking after the grand jury spent over two months reviewing the allegations that Planned Parenthood illegally sold donated fetal tissue for profit. Daleiden and Merritt weren’t so lucky. Tampering with a Governmental Record is a second-degree felony and Daleiden’s additional indictment for soliciting human organs is a Class A misdemeanor. If convicted of the top charge, Daleiden and Merritt could face up to 20 years behind bars, Anderson said.
Daleiden’s allegations were first publicized in July 2015 when he released the first of a long series of deceptively edited undercover videos in which he and his CMP colleagues, posing as representatives from a biomedical research company and using fake identification, unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Planned Parenthood representatives to violate federal law prohibiting the sale of human fetal tissue “for valuable consideration.”
One of the group’s most widely-viewed videos was filmed at a Planned Parenthood center in Texas. In the fifth CMP release, Daleiden and Meritt pose as buyers and approach the PPGC Director of Research about purchasing fetal tissue, offering compensation that is implied to go beyond or “higher” than what is legally permissible — an offer that the Planned Parenthood official refused. Under false pretenses, Daleiden also enters a Texas Planned Parenthood clinic’s pathological lab and examines donated fetal tissue himself.
PPGC has since released images of the IDs that Daleiden and Merritt allegedly used in Texas: two fake California driver’s licenses bearing the names “Robert Daoud Sarkis” and “Susan Tennenbaum.” The pair used these names in their interactions with PPGC employees and presented the fake IDs to gain entry into private medical conferences.
In Texas, someone can be charged with tampering with a governmental record if he or she “makes, presents, or uses any record, document, or thing with knowledge of its falsity and with intent that it be taken as a genuine governmental record.”
All the while, Daleiden and his co-conspirators were videotaping their interactions with employees of Planned Parenthood as well as several laboratories and medical companies. This footage was then presented to the public as “evidence of Planned Parenthood’s illegal trafficking of aborted fetal parts.” However, when the full-length videos were released, it quickly became apparent that the footage had been heavily manipulated to imply criminal activity where none existed. In one scene, Daleiden even tried to misrepresent a recycled image of a stillborn fetus delivered prematurely at 19 weeks as footage of an aborted fetus.
Despite being thoroughly disproven, the videos were quickly picked up by right-wing media and politicians, who used the doctored footage as an excuse to attack Planned Parenthood and anyone associated with them, spurring a wave of violence and hatred against the women’s health care organization. The man accused of opening fire on a Colorado Planned Parenthood clinic in November alluded to the videos in an interview with law enforcement, and there were four arson attacks at Planned Parenthood affiliates in the months after the first video was released.
Daleiden’s now-debunked allegations have also sparked several federal-level attempts to strip the organization of its funding, a grueling congressional hearing for its president, Cecile Richards, and at least a dozen state-level investigations, none of which have found evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
The criminal indictments against Daleiden come on the heels of Planned Parenthood’s own civil lawsuit against the anti-abortion activist, which it announced on Jan. 14. Planned Parenthood alleges that Daleiden and the CMP engaged in illegal conspiracy, violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, illegally recorded Planned Parenthood representatives without consent, violated confidentiality agreements, and committed fraud to gain access to conferences.
The indictment is notable for being the first criminal charge to arise out of the months-long furor around Planned Parenthood, and for being issued in Texas, where state Attorney General Ken Paxton led a particularly vitriolic investigation into the women’s health organization.