The head of the U.S. House of Representatives’ investigation into dubious allegations that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donation threatened “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company working with the health-care organization.
Failure to comply by May 12 will force Select Panel on Infant Lives Chair Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) to take unspecified actions against StemExpress, she said in a letter to the company’s chief executive officer, Cate Dyer.
Blackburn on Thursday announced that she issued subpoenas, dated April 29, to Scinto Group, LLP and Five Star Bancorp in order to secure StemExpress’ accounting and banking records. It’s not clear whether the subpoenas constitute Blackburn’s threat “to pursue all means necessary” or if further actions are yet to come.
The press release announcing the subpoenas referenced “the very troubling possibility that StemExpress may have violated federal law by profiting from the sale of baby body parts,” even though similar anti-choice rhetoric is connected to unprecedented violence and threats against abortion care providers.
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Blackburn’s initial “all means necessary” letter referenced anti-choice activist David Daleiden’s widely discredited Center for Medical Progress (CMP) videos as the basis for her outreach. Republican legislators coordinated with CMP officials when the first surreptitiously recorded videos attacking Planned Parenthood were released. A CMP video featuring illicit footage of StemExpress employees exposes the “practice of fetal body parts harvesting,” the anti-choice front group claimed.
Blackburn in the letter said that a majority of witnesses at the panel’s recent hearing on fetal tissue “pricing” testified to the need for StemExpress’ banking and other financial records. Those witnesses, however, were all Blackburn’s. A Republican press release issued after the hearing mischaracterized the testimony of Fay Clayton, a witness for the Democrats.
StemExpress condemned the proceedings in a statement that same day.
Blackburn criticized StemExpress for providing the panel with “attorney created estimates and summaries without back up materials.” At the “pricing” hearing, however, GOP lawmakers relied on allegedly falsified exhibits, some of which Republican staff based on materials submitted to the panel. Media Matters for America reported that the GOP’s slides duplicated or nearly duplicated “evidence” in the discredited CMP videos, including a doctored screenshot from StemExpress’ website.
Beyond the company’s financial paper trail, Blackburn asked for an organization chart, “including information detailing StemExpress personnel who procure(d) fetal tissue at the clinic level and the supervisory personnel for those procurers of fetal tissue.” The panel needs names of people involved in fetal tissue transactions and research in order to have a full understanding of what they involve, a spokesperson for the panel’s Republicans told Rewire in April.
Democrats on the panel and members of the medical community have repeatedly objected to Republican demands for names amid a climate of anti-choice violence. Incidents of targeted clinic violence continue to increase in the wake of the CMP videos.
StemExpress officials said in a statement said Blackburn’s letter misrepresents the company’s “continuous efforts” to respond to the panel’s requests since December 2015. Their efforts include relinquishing more than 2,000 pages of documents to various congressional committees.
“We have cooperated with an extensive document production, including accounting records that reflect the company’s financial loss on the provision of fetal tissue,” the statement said. “We will send her a comprehensive response, but as has become the pattern, this letter introduces 12 new requests that we are evaluating for the first time.”
The Republicans’ spokesperson maintained that StemExpress has not complied with the panel’s requests, necessitating Blackburn’s latest demands, he said in an interview.
Blackburn echoed that sentiment in the letter. “Having reviewed all of these written and verbal objections, I find all of StemExpress’ objections to the subpoena to be invalid and without legal merit,” she said.
Robert Raben, one of the Democrats’ witnesses from the “pricing” hearing, could not comment on the contents of Blackburn’s letter. Typically, members of Congress have broad authority to “ask for all kinds of things,” the former House Judiciary Committee counsel and Department of Justice official told Rewire in an interview. As in any legal proceedings, an entity may follow up with conversations and negotiations about what materials are appropriate to turn over to lawmakers and how to safeguard confidential information from leaks.
The panel’s Republicans appear to have a clear vision of the damning evidence they want to obtain, Raben said. They just haven’t been able to do so. No matter the pretense, the Republicans’ inquiry represents a means to intimidate people involved in reproductive rights, rather than a forensic accounting or scientific effort, he said.
“The committee was established to prove a particular point, you can see it from the title,” he added. “They seem to not be able to prove that point. But they keep going.”