Founders of Nonprofit Charged With 15 Felony Counts

Should nonprofits be involved in political action--even if that action may not be overtly political?

David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt of the Center for Medical Progress, have been charged with 15 felony counts in California for falsifying their identities and using a fake bioresearch company to covertly record videos of themselves trying to obtain fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood.

The Center for Medical Progress is a nonprofit organization that describes itself as “a group of citizen journalists dedicated to monitoring and reporting on medical ethics and advances.”

Among the charges California Attorney General Xavier Becerra has leveled against the pair are that they filmed more than a dozen people in Los Angeles and San Francisco without first receiving their consent. The AG also alleges that Daleiden took documents from a biotech firm specializing in stem cell procurement for scientific research, using a password from an employee who had been terminated.

The next year, Becerra alleges, Daleiden and Merritt posed as employees from another biotech firm to get into to a National Abortion Federation conference in San Francisco, where they secretly recorded speakers, vendors, and attendees. Daleiden and Merritt pretended to work for that same biotech firm and recorded private meetings with health professionals in Pasadena, Century City, El Dorado, and San Francisco.

“The right to privacy is a cornerstone of California’s Constitution, and a right that is foundational in a free democratic society,” Becerra said in a statement. “We will not tolerate the criminal recording of confidential conversations.”

The Center for Medical Progress itself hasn’t been implicated in the current charges or in a trial of Daleiden and Merritt last year in Harris County, Texas. The pair was cleared of any charges in the Texas trial.

The charges leveled against the Center for Medical Progress’s founders do, however, lead to ethical questions around political activities of 501(c)(3) organizations. The Center for Medical Progress is known to be funded by political groups such as Operation Rescue, and Operation Rescue President Troy Newman sits on CMP’s board. Operation Rescue’s umbrella organization, Youth Ministries Inc., had its 501(c)(3) status revoked in 2006 for endorsing political candidates and other actions disallowed under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code.

Does that mean that the Center for Medical Progress isn’t a legitimate 501(c)(3) organization? It seems like the work the organization’s founders did in producing their film about Planned Parenthood was aimed at influencing the political discourse and discrediting another nonprofit organization. And if a nonprofit’s founder is found guilty on felony counts, what happens to that organization?

Do you have any insights on the issue? Please share them in the comments.

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