A national anti-choice organization with close ties to the Trump administration helped activists launch a smear campaign against Planned Parenthood, a watchdog group announced Monday.
Americans United for Life (AUL) provided “extensive support” to the scheme launched by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the anti-choice front group that attacked Planned Parenthood, with doctored videos falsely accusing the reproductive health-care provider of trafficking fetal tissue, according to court documents published by the Campaign for Accountability (CfA), a watchdog organization that tracks the inner workings of anti-choice groups.
The documents were published days after a San Francisco federal court jury awarded Planned Parenthood over $2.2 million in damages in its civil lawsuit against CMP, its founder David Daleiden, and his co-conspirators. Following a six-week trial, the jury on November 15 found that the defendants broke multiple state and federal laws against racketeering, trespassing, fraud, and secret recording by infiltrating abortion-care conferences and taping Planned Parenthood doctors without their knowledge or consent.
“Americans United for Life presents itself as the authoritative voice of the anti-choice movement, but these documents show AUL was willing to aid and abet an alleged felony intent upon defaming Planned Parenthood,” CfA attorney Alice Huling said in a statement. “The American public and members of Congress should be aware that Americans United for Life is nothing but a Potemkin organization papering over its extremist, and possibly criminal, allegiances.”
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In July 2015, Daleiden released the deceptively edited videos through CMP. The videos insinuated that Planned Parenthood doctors harvested and sold organs from living fetuses to finance lavish lifestyles. Republicans on the state and federal level used the smear campaign to investigate Planned Parenthood and threaten or remove funding for the organization. No investigations turned up wrongdoing on Planned Parenthood’s part.
The documents unveiled Monday indicate AUL’s former president and CEO, Charmaine Yoest, served as an informal adviser to Daleiden’s smear campaign. Yoest is a longtime anti-choice advocate who in 2017 was appointed assistant secretary for public affairs in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) by President Donald Trump. Later, she served as associate director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy before taking a position with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think thank.
In September 2015, two months after CMP released the first videos attacking Planned Parenthood, Yoest referenced them in testimony to Congress about defunding abortion providers who break the law, and highlighted the videos in letters to Congress, according to CfA.
The court documents indicate Daleiden engaged AUL in January 2015 for “legal counsel and strategic assistance relating to proposed investigations” by CMP. Daleiden exchanged over 300 communications with at least 16 AUL employees, including Jeanneane Maxon, AUL’s former vice president of external affairs, and its former general counsel Ovide Lamontagne.
Yoest isn’t the only Trump administration official with ties to CMP. Daleiden confirmed on the stand last month that White House counselor Kellyanne Conway formulated media messaging for the doctored videos after they were released.
“Had the resources been there, we would have done it before,” Daleiden testified of hiring Conway.
Planned Parenthood says incidents of harassment and violence at its clinics skyrocketed following the videos’ release. In November 2015, three people died in a shooting at Planned Parenthood’s Colorado Springs facility. The shooter later repeated talking points from Daleiden’s videos. Some Planned Parenthood doctors received death threats over the videos and were placed under around-the-clock armed security, according to trial testimony. Two doctors testified they had moved residences as an extra precaution.
The jury found that the defendants substantially harmed Planned Parenthood, rejecting claims that Daleiden and his co-conspirators went undercover to expose wrongdoing.
Lawyers for the anti-choice activists vowed to appeal. “This jury is not going to have the last word,” Liberty Counsel attorney Horatio Mihet said outside court Friday. Mihet represents Sandra Merritt, who along with Daleiden, faces felony invasion of privacy charges in California over the recordings.
Mihet called the trial process “unfair,” specifically the decision in September by presiding U.S. District Judge William Orrick III to block evidence purportedly proving CMP’s allegations regarding illegal fetal tissue trafficking by abortion providers. Orrick barred the evidence from trial on the basis that it was prejudicial and irrelevant to the case.
The defense team balked. “It really is the core of the defense,” attorney Paul Jonna protested in court at the time.
They attempted to introduce the allegations dozens of times throughout the trial anyway, asking witnesses pointed questions about alleged infanticide and fetal tissue pricing. Orrick blocked their answers and repeatedly admonished the defense against asking the questions.
“This group’s false claims completely fell apart upon closer investigation, and they’ve been exposed as part of an extreme political agenda to outlaw abortion in this country,” Helene Krasnoff, vice president of public policy litigation and law at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. The “ruling makes clear that the only people who engaged in wrongdoing are those behind this fraud, and we’re glad to see that they’re finally being held accountable.”
Daleiden blamed Orrick for the unfavorable verdict, accusing him in a pair of tweets on Friday of “suppressing evidence” to achieve a “rigged outcome.” A statement from CMP called the judge “biased.”
The accusations echoed ones leveled against Orrick in 2017, when the judge indicated he might sanction defense attorneys in the criminal case for violating a preliminary injunction enjoining release of the videos. The defense promptly tried to disqualify him from Planned Parenthood’s case and a related case brought by the National Abortion Federation, accusing him of bias over his service on the board of Good Samaritan Family Resource Center, a San Francisco nonprofit that had housed a Planned Parenthood clinic.
U.S. District Judge James Donato denied the request, concluding Orrick’s board service, which ended in 2006, was “miles away from the kind of entanglements that would support recusal.”
The attorneys meanwhile published Orrick’s home address—a tactic routinely used by anti-choice activists to intimidate abortion providers—in a public document attached to the motion to disqualify him, according to the Recorder, a legal publication. An investigation by the U.S. Marshals Service found no wrongdoing, but a spokesman for the agency said it would begin “monitoring” for threats against Orrick.
The AUL documents also revealed that Life Legal Defense Foundation (LLDF) attorney Catherine Short—who represents one of Daleiden’s co-defendants—and four other “LLDF-affiliated individuals” funded and helped to fundraise for CMP. Other court records show that Short helped Daleiden set up Biomax Procurement Services, the fake biomedical company he pretended to be part of to infiltrate abortion-care conferences in 2014 and 2015. In September, Orrick blocked Planned Parenthood from calling Short to testify about her role in establishing Biomax.
But a month earlier, Orrick was clear. “[T]he defendants engaged in both illegal and fraudulent conduct,” he wrote in a sprawling order advancing the case to trial. “[T]here is no doubt that several defendants committed fraud.”