SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Closing arguments began Tuesday in Planned Parenthood’s civil fraud and racketeering case against a cohort of anti-abortion activists with attorneys for both sides impugning the other’s motives and leveling accusations of deceit.
“I’m asking you to stand up to the liars and the frauds,” Planned Parenthood attorney Jeremy Kamras told the jury of nine men and one woman. He urged them to award punitive damages to hold David Daleiden and his group of abortion opponents accountable for secretly taping and releasing videos of conversations with abortion providers in a bid to dismantle Planned Parenthood.
Using fake IDs, Daleiden and co-defendant Sandra Merritt infiltrated abortion industry conferences in 2014 and 2015 and secretly recorded conversations with Planned Parenthood staff. The pair presented themselves as procurers of fetal tissue for a phony company called BioMax Procurement Services, hoping to catch abortion providers profiting from the sale of fetal tissue for medical research.
The videos were released in July 2015, sparking an online backlash against Planned Parenthood and its personnel.
In 2016, Planned Parenthood sued Daleiden, Merritt and board members Albin Rhomberg and Troy Newman on claims of trespass, fraud, breach of contract, racketeering, and violation of federal and state recording laws in California, Florida and Maryland.
Though Rhomberg and Newman did not participate directly in making the recordings, they are named as co-conspirators because they knew about and approved of the project. Rhomberg even sent Daleiden an email instructing him on what footage to collect.
On Tuesday, Planned Parenthood attorney Rhonda Trotter went on the ideological attack of Daleiden and his group’s objectives.
“Nothing defendants told you about their intent is to be believed. Each of them has been demonstrated to be liars,” Trotter said. “The defendants’ plan here was not to find crimes, and it was not about journalism. It was about using any means, including illegal means, to destroy Planned Parenthood.”
Though Daleiden submitted written reports, law enforcement officials in El Dorado and Orange counties in California as well as attorneys general in Texas, Michigan, Arizona and Oklahoma never charged Planned Parenthood or its personnel with any crimes.
Trotter also said the case is not about abortion or about pro-choice versus pro-life views, instead urging the jury to “hold these defendants accountable” for trying to take down Planned Parenthood’s so-called “abortion empire.”
Daleiden’s attorney Peter Breen parried this by focusing on the First Amendment defense. Invoking the preamble of the Constitution, Breen said, “We the people need information only undercover journalists can provide. We don’t then turn around and blame the messenger for the message. We don’t hold them to account because of what some crazies outside this courtroom do with the information.”
Daleiden has contended that he and his group are citizen journalists investigating violent crimes, an argument U.S. District Judge William Orrick has ruled admissible only to provide context for the case – not as a legal defense.
Orrick has already determined Daleiden and his company trespassed at abortion conferences, and that they breached agreements they signed in order to pose as exhibitors at those conferences. He has also determined they trespassed at two clinics in Texas and Colorado where they also made secret recordings – awarding Planned Parenthood damages of $1 for each trespass and breach.
The jury must decide whether Planned Parenthood is entitled to actual damages, namely whether it was actually harmed and if defendants’ actions were a substantial factor in causing that harm.
Breen told the jury that Daleiden and his group cannot be blamed for any damage, and that they merely laid bare problems that already existed within the nonprofit Planned Parenthood.
“Maybe they exposed a hole, but they didn’t cause any damage,” he said.
Trotter said Daleiden and his group engaged in a sophisticated, long-running con to dupe Planned Parenthood into believing BioMax was a real company, creating fake names and identities, a fake registration with the California Secretary of State, and a fake website almost a year earlier to give the impression of legitimacy.
Another of Daleiden’s attorneys, Charles LiMandri, said “there were plenty of red flags” that Planned Parenthood ignored “because they were motivated by greed” of the potential partnership with BioMax.
“Why didn’t they do a Google search?” LiMandri asked. “They didn’t care about anything else until the videos came out. They’re mad because they got a black eye in the public eye. But they can’t recover [damages] for that.”
Under Orrick’s jury instructions, negligent vetting of BioMax by Planned Parenthood is not a defense. The organization only has to show that it reasonably relied on Daleiden’s and Merritt’s false representations.
Closing arguments continue Wednesday. Five more lawyers for the defense will get a crack at the jury, then Planned Parenthood will present its rebuttal.