The US Department of Justice has asked Congress for records of its investigation into Planned Parenthood and multiple fetal tissue procurement agencies, a sign it is taking steps to open its own investigation into the groups, a move anti-abortion politicians and activists have long been pushing for.
In a letter to the heads of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent Thursday evening (provided to BuzzFeed News by the Justice Department), Assistant Attorney General Stephen Boyd asked for unredacted copies of the records the committee reviewed for a 2016 report that looked into whether Planned Parenthood and three other organizations were profiting off of fetal tissue.
A letter like this from the Justice Department about a congressional investigation is not standard procedure. The letter did not specifically name Planned Parenthood and gave no indication of the breadth of the inquiry.
“The records are intended for investigative use only,” Boyd wrote in the letter, adding that it could require a Senate vote later on to allow those documents to be used in any ensuing legal proceedings that might result from the findings, “such as a grand jury.”
The Senate report requested by the Justice Department was inspired by secretly recorded and heavily edited videos made by anti-abortion activist David Daleiden and released in 2015. The videos show Planned Parenthood employees discussing the transfer of fetal tissue to biomedical companies, which in turn provide the tissue for scientific and medical research. Daleiden and his recording partner Sandra Merritt spent months posing as representatives from one of these firms in an attempt to prove that Planned Parenthood was illegally profiting off of fetal tissue.
The videos caused an uproar among anti-abortion advocates and politicians, launching more than a dozen state investigations and several congressional investigations into Planned Parenthood, including the Senate Judiciary Committee’s inquiry. More than two years later, no concrete evidence of Planned Parenthood profiting from fetal tissue has been found, though Planned Parenthood stopped accepting financial reimbursements for the costs of providing fetal tissue for medical research.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News on Friday, Daleiden said that he believed it was “long past time” for DOJ and the FBI to investigate Planned Parenthood and the tissue procurement agencies for “harvesting and sale of aborted fetal body parts for profit,” a phrase used in his video and widely adopted by anti-abortion advocates in the years since.
Daleiden is facing criminal charges and two civil lawsuits for recording Planned Parenthood and National Abortion Federation employees without their consent — which is illegal in California — as well as creating and using fake IDs and setting up a phony corporation to gain access to them.
The footage is currently under a court seal that prohibits its release, due to previous incidents of violence and threats of violence against Planned Parenthood and NAF employees related to the claims made in the videos. Daleiden and his lawyers were held in contempt of court earlier this year for violating this seal and releasing additional footage.
Daleiden told BuzzFeed News Friday that he is hopeful the seal will be lifted soon and that he will be able to release the remaining footage (“basically fifty percent” of what he recorded, he said) in the coming weeks. Daleiden said he believes the additional footage could be relevant to the potential investigation implied by the Justice Department letter.
The DOJ letter, dated Dec. 7, was addressed to Republican Sen. Charles Grassley and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. Grassley’s office told BuzzFeed News that the committee will “work to cooperate fully” with the Justice Department’s request.
But a Judiciary Committee aide told BuzzFeed News Friday that Feinstein’s office did not receive the letter until Friday evening, a day after Grassley’s office received it and after it was released to the press. DOJ did not immediately respond to request for comment on the delay.
Feinstein said in a statement sent to BuzzFeed News that DOJ’s letter was “in response to Chairman Grassley’s requests” that DOJ review the report, which was written by Republican staff in December 2016 and was “never brought before the full committee.”
“I hope that there isn’t a partisan purpose in taking this action and that the department handles the chairman’s request in a professional and ethical manner,” Feinstein said in the statement.
Planned Parenthood has repeatedly denied the allegations of profiting off of fetal tissue in the past. Asked for comment, Planned Parenthood pointed to a November statement in which Dana Singiser, vice president of government affairs, said, "Planned Parenthood strongly disagrees with the recommendations of the Senate Republican staff to refer this matter to the Justice Department.” The statement went on to cite several congressional investigations and more than a dozen state investigations into Planned Parenthood, none of which found any concrete evidence of the health provider profiting from fetal tissue.
“Planned Parenthood has never, and would never, profit while facilitating its patients’ choice to donate fetal tissue for use in important medical research,” she added.
The Senate Judiciary report was based on a review of more than 20,000 documents provided to the committee by Planned Parenthood and the contracted organizations, including four Planned Parenthood affiliates and four tissue procurement agencies, such as StemExpress, Advanced Biosciences Resources, and Novogenix Laboratories.
The report alleged that the actions of those organizations “potentially implicate a number of federal laws” against the sale for profit of human tissue, but that the ability to find these potential violations were “beyond the resources” of the committee and therefore they were unable to find specific evidence of illegal activity by Planned Parenthood.
Grassley sent the report in December 2016, along with a “criminal referral” of the involved organizations, to then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and then-FBI Director James Comey for further investigation.
The Senate report included excerpts from a Planned Parenthood–commissioned Fusion GPS analysis of the videos, which found them to be deceptively edited and missing large chunks of Daleiden’s conversations with the Planned Parenthood staff.
Anti-abortion advocates were quick to treat the DOJ letter as a sign of things to come, taking the opportunity to encourage Congress to end Medicaid reimbursements for Planned Parenthood’s nonabortion services, legislation Republicans in Congress have repeatedly failed to pass, in response.
“We anticipate that this investigation will only underscore the urgent need to redirect half a billion dollars in annual taxpayer funding away from the abortion giant and we hope to see Congress to deliver on this core promise soon,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, said in a statement Friday.
“In light of this information Congress needs to follow through on their commitment to defund our nation’s largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood,” president of March for Life Jeanne Mancini echoed in her statement.