While the recent release of a series of undercover “sting” videos by the antiabortion activist group the Center for Medical Progress has launched a national debate over defunding Planned Parenthood, a quieter — but perhaps even more complex — story involving the women’s health organization is brewing in Texas, where the most recently released video, the fifth in the series, takes place.
The fifth, and most recent, video released by CMP was shot at a Planned Parenthood in Texas. (Video: YouTube)
At the center of it is Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who last week was indicted by a Texas grand jury. Paxton turned himself in to jail on Aug. 3 for felony securities fraud charges — to which he will plead not guilty. By Tuesday he was back at work, investigating Planned Parenthood.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. (Photo: TexasAttorneyGeneral.gov)
In office for only seven months, Paxton is regarded as a rising star of the tea party, the far-right wing of the Republican Party. Former President George W. Bush was a campaign donor, and presidential candidate and current Texas Sen. Ted Cruz offered critical public support to Paxton’s campaign last year.
Paxton, like many other conservative state leaders, called for a statewide investigation into Planned Parenthood following the release of the initial Center for Medical Progress videos, the first of which was released on July 14. A five-hour hearing of the Texas state Senate’s Committee on Health and Human Services took place on July 29 and was described by the Austin Chronicle as “less about getting down to the truth than it was another shot at both Planned Parenthood and abortion care in Texas.”
There was one unusual aspect to the hearing, which was led by Republican Texas state Sen. Charles Schwertner.
Prior to the hearing on July 29, Paxton and Republican committee members were given an advance screening of the unedited CMP footage shot at the Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast affiliate clinic in Houston. The edited version of this tape was released by the Center for Medical Progress on Aug. 4.
On July 24, Planned Parenthood Federation of America learned that Paxton’s office was in receipt of the video and that Schwertner’s office was making it available for viewing to members of the Committee on Health and Human Services on July 27 and 28, in advance of the hearing. It was being screened at the attorney general’s office more than a week before it was officially released by the Center for Medical Progress (though no one knew the official release date at that time). On July 26, Planned Parenthood requested the footage from Schwertner’s office (footage that, Planned Parenthood tells Yahoo Health, was illegally obtained under false pretenses and using fake IDs).
Planned Parenthood and its counsel, Deborah C. Hiser of Husch Blackwell, were informed by Schwertner’s chief of staff, Tom Holloway, via email on July 27 that “the video in question has been obtained by the Texas Attorney General’s Office as part of an ongoing investigation into the activities of Planned Parenthood in Texas.”
In his email, Holloway also notes that the members of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services “and their respective staffs have been granted limited access to review the video in advance of the hearing.”
These state senators and their staffs were all required to sign nondisclosure agreements after viewing the CMP footage. They were granted access to the footage through legislative privilege, the policy that allows state agencies to provide confidential information upon the request of lawmakers for “legislative purposes.”
Holloway concludes his email by noting that he “would respectfully refer you to the Office of the Attorney General” to fulfill Hiser and Planned Parenthood’s request to review the contents of the CMP video.
Schwertner’s office noted to Yahoo Health that at no point did it ever have custody of the video itself — it was merely allowed to view it once the video was obtained by the attorney general’s office. Schwertner’s office remains unclear regarding the circumstances surrounding how Paxton and his team came to obtain the CMP video.
“We don’t have any relationship with that group,” Holloway told Yahoo Health. “No one in our office has any present relationship with the Center for Medical Progress.”
So Hiser, on behalf of Planned Parenthood, attempted to get a copy of the video from Paxton’s office.
In a letter dated July 27, Hiser writes, “Dear Attorney General Paxton:
We have been notified by Senator Schwertner’s office that your office is in possession of a videotape illegally recorded by BioMax Procurement Services, LLC, now known as the Center for Medical Progress, at a Planned Parenthood facility in Houston.
“Senator Schwertner’s office, in that communication, clearly states the Senate Health & Human Services Committee Members and staff have viewed this specific videotape in preparation for a public hearing. … Because the videotape has already been reviewed by such Members and staff, it is no longer privileged.
“Therefore, in fairness to Planned Parenthood as the subject of the investigation, and pursuant to the Public Information Act, we are formally requesting of your office an opportunity to review this video, in its entirety, prior to the scheduled hearing on Wednesday as referenced by Senator Schwertner.”
Paxton did not release the footage.
On Aug. 4, the edited, 15-minute version of the video was released by CMP. On Thursday the organization released what it says is the full version of the Texas footage on its website and YouTube. This “full” footage clocks in at five hours and 45 minutes. But a source close to the investigation tells Yahoo Health of having seen the “full, unredacted, eight-hour version of the tape” via Paxton’s office. Is the publicly released “full” footage far from it?
The “full” footage of CMP’s undercover video, shot at a Texas Planned Parenthood. (Video: YouTube)
On Friday, Aug. 7, the general counsel for Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast sent yet another letter to Paxton’s office:
“Your office is in possession of a video illegally recorded by BioMax Procurement Services, LLC, now known as the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), at a Planned Parenthood facility in Houston.
“This video is the focus of several state and local investigations, yet Planned Parenthood has been unable to view it in its entirety. Although CMP has released several edited versions online, we do not believe they have published the full version that is in your possession. In other words, we believe there is footage missing from the videos published online.”
The letter goes on to reiterate Planned Parenthood’s right to review the video in compliance with the Public Information Act.
The Public Information Act is a Texas state law that “enshrines Texans’ right to access the information that governmental bodies produce” out of the state’s belief that it is in the public’s best interest “that the public should know what their government is doing.” The PIA applies to all records of all forms, including “data or video representation held in computer memory.”
Planned Parenthood’s counsel concluded Friday’s letter by asking Paxton to confirm the length of the video in his possession.
At the time of publication, Paxton’s office had yet to release the tape — or respond to Yahoo Health’s repeated calls for comment.
In his own testimony at the hearing, Paxton himself refused to disclose where or how he obtained the CMP video footage so far in advance of its public release. Furthermore, Paxton stated on the record that even if Planned Parenthood was in full compliance with all state regulatory fetal tissue donation laws, “the true abomination in all this is the institution of abortion.”