POLITICS
07/17/2015 04:00 pm ET

Group Behind Planned Parenthood Sting Video May Have Tricked IRS, Donors

The IRS thought it was some kind of biomedicine charity.

WASHINGTON -- The anti-abortion group that released an undercover "sting" video of a Planned Parenthood doctor this week appears to be a dummy nonprofit that may have deceived the Internal Revenue Service and the public about its mission. 

The two-year-old Center for Medical Progress, which claims to be in the business of reporting on biomedical research, released undercover footage Tuesday of a Planned Parenthood doctor allegedly discussing the sale of fetal body parts after abortions. The video, which Planned Parenthood has denounced as misleading and heavily edited, was circulated widely and prompted House Republicans to launch an investigation into the family planning provider.

But as Slate reports, the Center for Medical Progress appears to be nothing more than a front organization for the anti-abortion group Live Action. That is not how the IRS understood it when considering the group's application for tax-exempt status, and not how the group originally presented itself to the public in soliciting donations. 

According to new research by the Bridge Project, the policy arm of the progressive group American Bridge, the IRS granted the Center for Medical Progress tax-exempt status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit in 2013 under the classification code G92, which applies to biomedicine charities. In the National Taxonomy of Exempt Entities, which is used by the IRS, that classification covers "Diseases, Disorders, Medical Disciplines: Biomedicine, Bioengineering." So-called "right to life" groups, defined as groups that "support the passage of legislation which assigns legal rights to the unborn and seeks to criminalize the termination of unwanted pregnancies," have their own classification code with the IRS.

The IRS likely mistook the Center for Medical Progress as a biomedicine charity if the group described itself on its application much as it described itself on its original website: "a non-profit organization dedicated to informing and educating both the lay public and the scientific community about the latest advances in regenerative medicine, cell-based therapies, and related disciplines. We take a special interest in the lab-to-clinic translational dynamic and tracking its implications for academics, advocacy, private sector players, and the individual patient.”

While it was describing itself that way, the organization had a donate button on its website that asked the public to help it "continue to operate." 

But the only thing the Center for Medical Progress appears to have done in the past two years is produce this undercover video investigation into Planned Parenthood. David Daleiden, a longtime anti-abortion activist and the center's founder, previously served as director of research for Live Action, the group that has released several sensational sting videos of Planned Parenthood over the past few years and appears to be solely dedicated to destroying the family planning provider.

Live Action and the Center for Medical Progress did not respond to requests for comment. 

Eric Ferrero, vice president of Communications at Planned Parenthood, fired back at the Center for Medical Progress. He told HuffPost, "This group's outrageous claims about Planned Parenthood are flat-out lies, so it should be no surprise that they also lied and may have broken multiple laws in order to pull off this smear campaign. This is the latest in an eight-year-long string of false attacks and heavily edited videos that are all part of a political agenda to ban abortion completely and defund Planned Parenthood -- an agenda that the public overwhelmingly opposes."

If the Center for Medical Progress deliberately misled the IRS and donors about the nature of its nonprofit work, it could be subject to civil and criminal fraud penalties. IRS forms are signed under penalty of perjury, and a nonprofit misleading its donors about the nature of its work is "up there with all other kinds of fraud," according to Bruce Hopkins, an attorney who specializes in nonprofit law.

"The authorities have the right to shut down the charity, and the individuals behind the fraud can go to prison or pay a substantial fine," Hopkins said.

Since the center released the Planned Parenthood video, it has changed the description. The "About Us" page now reads:

The Center for Medical Progress is a group of citizen journalists dedicated to monitoring and reporting on medical ethics and advances. We are concerned about contemporary bioethical issues that impact human dignity, and we oppose any interventions, procedures, and experiments that exploit the unequal legal status of any class of human beings. We envision a world in which medical practice and biotechnology ally with and serve the goods of human nature and do not destroy, disfigure, or work against them.

It is unclear how many people might have donated to the Center for Medical Progress since 2013 thinking it was a biomedicine charity, because the nonprofit does not appear to have filed its 990 tax forms.

The Center for Medical Progress carried out the Planned Parenthood sting by creating a shell company, Biomax, which then sought a lunch meeting with Dr. Deborah Nucatola, the family planning provider's senior director of medical services. Nucatola thought she was meeting with a "fetal tissue procurement company," and she discussed over wine how she would be careful during an abortion to preserve certain fetal organs in order to donate the tissue for scientific research. She said the clinic would typically be reimbursed between $30 and $100 per specimen for the extra costs associated with transporting the parts.

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards apologized in a video on Thursday for Nucatola's tone and statements in the video, but she maintained that the allegations about selling fetal body parts were "not true." Richards said that women seeking abortions sometimes choose to donate fetal tissue for scientific and medical research, and that Planned Parenthood follows "all laws and ethical guidelines" in doing so and makes no profit from the donations.

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