Lady Justice / John

A high-profile Harris County, Texas, grand jury that had been convened to investigate Planned Parenthood for selling fetal tissue did return two indictments today—but not against Planned Parenthood. Instead, they came down against David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt of the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the organization that created the fetal tissue sting videos.

Daleiden and Merritt were both indicted on felony charges of tampering with a governmental record, and Daleiden was additionally indicted on a misdemeanor count related to purchasing human organs. (Daleiden violated 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.”) A warrant has been issued for Daleiden.

Details of the indictments have not been released, but readers may remember that Planned Parenthood has charged that CMP broke federal laws in its video campaign, including mail fraud, invasion of privacy, illegal secret recording and trespassing.

The investigation was conducted by the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, the Texas Rangers, and the Houston Police Department. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick originally sparked the grand jury investigation after the release of a video shot in a Planned Parenthood clinic in Houston. State health officials later pointed to that video as a reason to cut the clinics off the state’s Medicaid program. Texas was one of a number of states that used the video to justify defunding actions. At the time, Texas Governor Greg Abbott declared, “The gruesome harvesting of baby body parts by Planned Parenthood will not be allowed in Texas and the barbaric practice must be brought to an end.”

Republican District Attorney Devon Anderson, speaking of the grand jury’s findings, said, “We were called upon to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. 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.”

Despite the grand jury’s findings, which included clearing Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing, Governor Abbott’s office said in a statement that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission still were investigating the videos. “Nothing about today’s announcement in Harris County impacts the state’s ongoing investigation,” Abbott 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.”

On January 14th, Planned Parenthood announced its own civil lawsuit against Daleiden and CMP, alleging they have 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. The New York Times describes the action:

The 65-page suit states that the defendants set up a fake company called Biomax Procurement Services, and claimed to be part of a legitimate provider of fetal tissue to researchers. With fake identities, the suit charged, the defendants gained access to closed meetings of Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Federation, then violated signed nondisclosure agreements as they wore hidden cameras and recorded hundreds of hours of conversations.

Planned Parenthood is seeking redress for what it says are civil violations of conspiracy laws as well as state privacy and other statutes. The suit asks for restitution of actual costs, punitive damages and triple damages under the civil racketeering claim.

A suit for frivolous use of taxpayer money might be in order, too, if the Texas Governor’s office persists in its persecution of the health care provider.  But the return of the indictments against Daleiden and Merritt is a good step forward not just for Planned Parenthood, but for all nonprofits who would dare stand up in the face of conspiratorial detractors looking to use a nonprofit as some kind of sacrificial political lamb.

In 2011, in the wake of similar stings on ACORN, NPR, and, yes, Planned Parenthood, Rick Cohen wrote an article for NPQ entitled “Why Sting Operations Cheapen Public Policy Discourse.” In it, he urged nonprofits to look to their organizational cultures, promote an integrity that would pass muster no matter how it might be seduced to do otherwise, and to observe a proud transparency. Holding all that to be true, we also need to hold the practitioners of such nonsense accountable. The grand jury indictment of Daleiden and Merritt was a surprising gift of sorts to Planned Parenthood, but Planned Parenthood’s willingness to sue and pursue not only the videomakers but also those who would use the fruit of that poisoned tree for their own mischief making is a gift from that organization to the rest of the sector in the form of a powerful model of how to respond to politicized attacks.

Special thanks go to Martin Levine for his assistance compiling this feature.