Congressional Democrats have flagged a conflict of interest at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in the form of March Bell, a former top staffer behind an anti-abortion “witch hunt” that uncovered no credible allegations against Planned Parenthood.
Bell was the staff director and chief counsel for the GOP’s so-called Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives. Under Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), a candidate for the U.S. Senate, the panel spent $1.59 million in taxpayer money to push the myth that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donations. Republicans tasked to the investigation appeared to work closely with the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), and now, their counterparts across the aisle are worried that Bell’s ties to the anti-choice front group will color his work in the nation’s top public health agency.
“Mr. Bell’s reported statements and actions call into question his conduct, judgment, and ability to meet professional standards of impartiality and fairness,” Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky (IL), Jerrold Nadler (NY), Diana DeGette (CO), Jackie Speier (CA), Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ), and Suzan DelBene (WA) wrote in a letter to recently confirmed HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
Bell has since moved on to the HHS office devoted to civil rights. As chief of staff for the office’s leader, anti-LGBTQ activist Roger Severino, Bell likely worked on plans to undermine civil rights in the name of “religious freedom,” or religious imposition. Severino last month announced a new health-care discrimination wing—the muscle behind an all-out religious attack expected to hurt LGBTQ patients and access to reproductive health services, including contraception, miscarriage management, and abortion care.
The Democrats asked that “at the very least,” Bell be recused from any pending civil rights case “pertaining to fetal tissue or abortion services.”
“It is clear that Mr. Bell is not an impartial investigator on those topics, and we do not believe he can be trusted to fairly adjudicate any related cases,” they told Azar in the letter.
Azar recently accepted Centers for Disease Control and Prevention head Brenda Fitzgerald’s resignation after Politico revealed that Fitzgerald, the public face of the federal government’s anti-smoking efforts, had bought tobacco stock. Azar plans to take “a hard line on any ethical problems in the department,” according to a follow-up report, given former Secretary Tom Price’s departure over his own ethics scandal.
The Democrats cited a Right Wing Watch report documenting Bell’s remarks to the 2017 Law of Life Summit, an annual March for Life-affiliated event. Bell touted anti-choice ties to David Daleiden, the since-indicted CMP leader; Troy Newman, the head of the radical anti-choice Operation Rescue; and Mark Crutcher of Life Dynamics, the group behind bogus legal threats to trick teens into signing away abortion rights.
Bell further “made it clear that while his committee was ostensibly convened to investigate fetal tissue procurement practices—and did extensively delve into that area— one of its ultimate goals was to find ways to weaken Planned Parenthood,” Right Wing Watch reported.
Three Republican-led congressional committee investigations, 13 states, and a Texas grand jury have disproved the allegations put forward in CMP’s deceptively edited videos, coordinated with GOP lawmakers in 2015. The select panel, with Bell’s assistance, nevertheless concluded with a report that echoed the smear campaign. Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Chuck Grassley (R-IA) issued his own report propping up the baseless claims, and late last year, he coordinated with the U.S. Department of Justice on a potential criminal investigation into Planned Parenthood.
Legal Research Associate Brie Shea contributed to this report.