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Two antiabortion activists behind undercover Planned Parenthood videos charged with 15 felonies

Two antiabortion activists whose controversial undercover videos accused Planned Parenthood doctors of selling fetal tissue were charged Tuesday with 15 felonies by California prosecutors.

State Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra’s office alleges that David Daleiden and his co-conspirator, Sandra Merritt, filmed 14 people without their consent at meetings with women’s healthcare providers in Los Angeles, Pasadena, San Franciso and El Dorado.

The edited videos were published online, prompting outrage among abortion foes and triggering a wave of threats to abortion providers and those who were secretly recorded.

Special report: How anti-abortion activists used undercover Planned Parenthood videos to further a political cause »

Prosecutors filed 14 felony counts of unlawfully recording people without their permission — one count for each person — as well as one count of conspiracy to invade privacy.

Becerra, a veteran congressman who became attorney general in January, said his office “will not tolerate the criminal recording of confidential conversations.”

“The right to privacy is a cornerstone of California’s Constitution, and a right that is foundational in a free democratic society,” Becerra said.

After the charges were filed Tuesday, Daleiden released a statement through his organization, the Irvine-based Center for Medical Progress, that blasted prosecutors.

“The bogus charges from Planned Parenthood's political cronies are fake news,” the statement said. “We look forward to showing the entire world what is on our yet-unreleased video tapes of Planned Parenthood’s criminal baby body parts enterprise, in vindication of the First Amendment rights of all.”

A representative for Merritt could not immediately be reached for comment.

An affidavit filed in San Francisco Superior Court alleges that Daleiden and Merritt used phony California driver’s licenses and a fabricated medical research company, BioMax Procurement Services, to attend the National Abortion Federation’s 2014 conference in San Francisco.

At the conference, the pair posed as BioMax representatives, offered fake names and surreptitiously recorded eight attendees and speakers, according to court papers.

In the months after the conference, they used the same sham biomedical company to set up meetings with women’s healthcare providers — at restaurants such as Craft in Century City and AKA Bistro in Pasadena — whom they also surreptitiously recorded, prosecutors alleged.

Many of the videos were edited and published on the website for the Center for Medical Progress. Daleiden claimed the videos showed the sale of tissue from aborted fetuses.

The videos resulted in a "flood of hate speech, threats and violence" to abortion providers, said Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation.

The videos again made Planned Parenthood the target of controversy.

Although the organization said it never has and never would sell fetal tissue, it did apologize for some of the remarks that Daleiden’s camera’s captured. It also restricted affiliated clinics from accepting legal reimbursement for making fetal tissue available to researchers.

After the videos’ release, authorities in a dozen states opened investigations. None of the inquiries found wrongdoing by the organization.

In January 2015, a grand jury in Houston cleared Planned Parenthood and instead indicted Daleiden and Merritt on felony charges of tampering with government records. The charges against the pair were fully dismissed in July.

Mary Alice Carter, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement late Tuesday that the charges against Daleiden and Merritt “sends a clear message” that targeting healthcare providers brings consequences.

"As we have said from the beginning, and as more than a dozen different state investigations have made clear: Planned Parenthood has done nothing wrong, and the only people who broke the law are those behind the fraudulent tapes,” Carter said.

matt.hamilton@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattHjourno

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UPDATES:

10 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background.

This article was originally published at 7:40 p.m.

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