In announcing the charges against David Robert Daleiden and Sandra Merritt on Tuesday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the duo used manufactured identities and a fictitious bioresearch company to meet medical officials and covertly record the private discussions they initiated.
“The right to privacy is a cornerstone of California’s Constitution, and a right that is foundational in a free democratic society,” Becerra said. “We will not tolerate the criminal recording of confidential conversations.”
The criminal complaint alleges that on 14 occasions, between October 2013 and July 2015, Daleiden and Merritt filmed people without permission in Los Angeles, San Francisco and El Dorado counties. The activists face a felony count for each person covertly recorded, and an additional felony charge for criminal conspiracy to invade privacy.
The charges mark a major turning point in a case that had drawn national attention from both sides of the abortion debate and led to investigations — but no charges — against Planned Parenthood in 13 states. The secretly recorded conversations dropped during the politically tumultuous summer of 2015, amid a crowded field of Republican presidential contenders, and turned Daleiden into the biggest star of the antiabortion movement. The heavily edited videos attempted to discredit Planned Parenthood, long a target of the right, and galvanized conservatives’ efforts to pull funding from the women’s health organization and other family planning programs.
The court fight over the videos began in April 2015, when Daleiden and Merritt made site visits at Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast headquarters, using fake names and driver’s licenses to portray themselves as a company interested in connecting Planned Parenthood health centers with research studies. The two antiabortion activists were actually affiliated with Daleiden’s little-known antiabortion nonprofit, the Center for Medical Progress.
While touring the facilities, they recorded undercover videos, supposedly showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing plans to sell aborted human fetal tissue and body parts left for scientific research.
In a phone interview with The Washington Post after the charges were announced Tuesday, Daleiden said they were “completely bogus” and claimed that the conversations were not confidential. He pointed to a September 2015 congressional hearing during which Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, called the setting of some of the recorded clinical conversations “nonconfidential.”
“Planned Parenthood’s own CEO might have to be the first witness that we call in opposition to the charges that are being brought,” Daleiden said, adding that his work in exposing the conversations was “citizen journalism par excellence.”
The antiabortion activist added that in the coming weeks he will be releasing previously unseen footage pertaining to Planned Parenthood.
Daleiden’s lawyer, Steve Cooley, a former district attorney of Los Angeles, blamed the charges on Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), a former attorney general of California whose office initiated the investigation that produced Tuesday’s charges. He claims Harris corrupted the current attorney general’s office to “pander to her constituents and her supporters.” Cooley said he looks forward to “cross examining her” in court.
“It was nothing more than a First Amendment journalist pursuing a good cause and fighting a battle, now a martyr who’s being crushed by the power of the State of California,” Cooley said.
Mary Alice Carter, interim vice president of communications for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement Tuesday that the nationwide investigations have made clear Planned Parenthood has done nothing wrong, and the only people who broke the law are those behind the “fraudulent tapes.”
“The California Attorney General filing criminal charges sends a clear message that you cannot target women and you cannot target health care providers without consequences,” Carter said in the statement. “We look forward to justice being served.”
Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, tweeted: “Thanks to Planned Parenthood docs & clinicians who continued thru it all to provide care, no matter what.”
The anti-abortion activists turned themselves in to authorities in Texas in February 2016, after being indicted on similar charges. Months later, all the charges were dropped, as prosecutors said a grand jury had overstepped its authority.
Last month, in one of several state investigations stemming from the undercover videos, a federal judge ruled that Texas officials could not cut off Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood, allowing the organization to continue providing reimbursed services — at least temporarily — to the 12,500 Texas Medicaid patients who rely on it.
U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks, in Austin, wrote that Texas officials lacked “even a scintilla of evidence” to conclude that Planned Parenthood committed wrongdoing and warranted termination from the Medicaid program.
“A secretly recorded video, fake names, a grand jury indictment, congressional investigations — these are the building blocks of a best-selling novel rather than a case concerning interplay of federal and state authority through the Medicaid program,” Sparks wrote in the ruling.