Pa. Gov. Wolf got alert from Planned Parenthood, video talking points
HARRISBURG — Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania’s lobbyist tipped off Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s office about videos that touched off a national furor over the sale of fetal tissue.
Lobbyist Sari Stevens offered talking points and told the governor’s aides that her information was intended to remain among “friends,” according to Wolf administration emails provided to the Tribune-Review. The story “has not reached mainstream media yet; we are trying to keep it that way,” she wrote.
Government money for Planned Parenthood has divided state and federal lawmakers since the Center for Medical Progress, an anti-abortion advocacy group, released the videos starting in July. The releases prompted protests across the country, including one at a Pittsburgh abortion clinic.
“Those videos were almost barbaric,” said Jacob Dvorak, 80, of Natrona Heights, a member of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation board.
The administration “acted swiftly to conduct a comprehensive review of facilities in Pennsylvania to ensure they are complying with the law,” Wolf’s spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said Tuesday. “Officials from the Department of Health went into all facilities to verify practices and guarantee there was full adherence to Pennsylvania law.”
That review was announced July 24, the day after Wolf promoted legislative liaison Mary Isenhour to chief of staff. The timing touched a nerve with some anti-abortion advocates because Isenhour had been a member of Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania’s board.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, said Planned Parenthood money will be part of the discussion once the GOP-led Legislature and Wolf near agreement on a state budget.
In the emails, Stevens provided Wolf’s staff with “talking points” about the videos and on two other occasions. Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania Advocates exchanged dozens of emails with aides to Wolf, the first governor to have served as an “escort” for women at the state’s largest abortion provider.
“I think it’s a bit cozy of a relationship when you consider the state is supposed to be ensuring safety and regulating the facilities,” said attorney Robert Salera, research director for ex-Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s re-election campaign. Wolf defeated Corbett last year.
Salera, who is anti-abortion, said he filed a Right to Know Law request for the emails on seeing the undercover videos.
“I haven’t been paid to do any of this,” Salera said.
Sheridan said the emails “being pushed by Republican operatives” reflect no more than Wolf’s longheld support for “a woman’s right to make her own medical decisions.” Sheridan said Wolf aides didn’t use Stevens’ proposed “talking points.”
“The governor’s office communicates with many organizations, with varying missions, from across Pennsylvania — including Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides important health care to women, including breast cancer screenings and other vital health care services,” Sheridan said.
Stevens said her job “is explicitly to protect our 108,000 patients’ ability to receive services at our 32 Pennsylvania health centers, and that includes sharing information with elected officials and their staff, including the governor’s office.
“I imagine you will find nearly identical communications between any other organizational lobbyist or stakeholder and elected officials,” she said.
In her news tip to the administration, Stevens denounced the “heavily edited, secretly recorded videotape that falsely portrays Planned Parenthood’s participation in tissue donation programs that support lifesaving scientific research.”
Asked about her emails, Stevens said Tuesday: “No Pennsylvania Planned Parenthood affiliate participates in fetal tissue donation — period.”
Every governor has favorite interest groups and organizations, said G. Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. There’s nothing unusual about Wolf’s emails except they’ve been made public as part of his commitment to transparency, Madonna said.
Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, a pro-abortion rights leader, said he and others are “happy to have a governor who has our backs and has the backs of women across the commonwealth.”
The past four years under anti-abortion Corbett brought “attacks on women’s health care,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery County. “There’s a stark difference between the last governor and this one.”
Sheridan released a letter from state Health Secretary Karen Murphy stating, “Although donation of fetal tissue is lawful under the Abortion Control Act and federal law, our review has found that Planned Parenthood facilities in Pennsylvania do not participate in this practice.”
Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, had sought an independent investigation led by Attorney General Kathleen Kane. The leaders’ offices said Kane, a Democrat, did not respond. “There was certainly no disrespect intended by our snafu,” said her spokesman, Chuck Ardo.
In an interview, Scarnati said he is not satisfied with the Wolf administration’s review of whether the practice of selling tissue occurred in Pennsylvania.
“It’s something that sickens me, and we haven’t gotten a real answer,” he said.
House Health Committee Chairman Matthew Baker, R-Wellsboro, who requested the Health Department investigation, said he appreciated Murphy’s quick response, but he has “concerns about the nature of any self-reporting done by an organization, whether or not it is abortion-related.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter.