AP Photo/John Minchillo
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A Cincinnati anti-abortion activist was in regular contact with Republican Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s office during a 2015 Planned Parenthood investigation and some of her input was shared with state investigators, according to emails obtained by The Associated Press.
The records shed new light on the internal handling of an investigation DeWine launched in response to a secretly taped video that appeared to show Planned Parenthood employees engaged in potentially illegal fetal tissue sales.
DeWine, an abortion opponent and gubernatorial candidate, ultimately found no such tissue sales by the abortion provider, but raised concerns about Planned Parenthood’s disposal of fetal remains that he said had to be addressed.
The documents show Paula Westwood, executive director of Right to Life of Greater Cincinnati, emailed DeWine’s community liaison detailed suggestions for carrying out the probe, including names, addresses and a lawyer to consult.
The liaison, Richard D. “Dee” Weghorst, forwarded some of Westwood’s communications to senior staff members, including chief of staff Mary Mertz, chief counsel Sheryl Creed Maxfield and then-policy director Ryan Stubenrauch, who’s now the spokesman for DeWine’s gubernatorial campaign.
Also, Robert Schmansky, a lawyer involved in the investigation, reported to Maxfield in an Aug. 10, 2015, email that he’d spoken with Westwood by phone. He said she passed along two tips regarding the relationship between Planned Parenthood of Southwest Ohio and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and alleged stem-cell research at the hospital using fetal tissues.
Schmansky noted that Westwood “conceded that she has no direct information,” but told Maxfield: “I will follow-up with Pete (Thomas, chief of the Charitable Law Section) on how we might incorporate any of this information into our investigation.”
Catherine Turcer, executive director of Common Cause Ohio, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, said state investigations need to be impartial and appearing to give special access to those with a particular political ideology is potentially problematic for DeWine.
“It is easier to understand a quid pro quo of a financial situation than with making investigative decisions based on ideology and your cozy relationships, but it’s still a conflict of interest,” she said.
Westwood said in an interview that she did not know Maxfield and could not recall ever speaking with Schmansky on the phone. She said Weghorst is her organization’s regional contact at the office.
“There is a concern that there may be some activity going on that is shady and, essentially, it was ‘Have you looked into this? This may be a possibility.’ That’s about it,” Westwood said. “I would say, as any citizen can, these are our public officials and we can ask these questions. I see their office as (a place) both Right to Life and Planned Parenthood can access for information or to ask them to look into certain things.”
Dan Tierney, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said the office handles tens of thousands of constituent inquiries like Westwood’s each year.
“If somebody’s taking the emails that you (AP) received and the records request to think that Paula Westwood is directing an investigation of our Charitable Law section, that would be a misreading of those emails,” he said.
Lauren Blauvelt-Copelin, campaign director for Planned Parenthood Votes Ohio, the group’s super PAC, said DeWine has led a “crusade” against Planned Parenthood with the help of anti-abortion groups.
“In 2015, Attorney General Mike DeWine launched a baseless investigation against Planned Parenthood without doing any due diligence into the underlying falsehoods and used it as a political attack,” she said.
Stubenrauch, the spokesman for DeWine’s gubernatorial campaign, said: “The investigation into Planned Parenthood uncovered the gruesome practice of disposing of aborted babies in a landfill in Kentucky. We continue to hope that the Legislature will pass a law and prevent something as tragic as this from happening again in the future.”
Planned Parenthood has said it wasn’t a typical landfill, but a solid waste facility specifically licensed for medical material.
In an earlier release of records surrounding the investigation, the AP found a close relationship between DeWine and Mike Gonidakis, president of Ohio Right to Life, including direct emails.
Neither request turned up evidence that DeWine’s office shared its Planned Parenthood report with Gonidakis or Westwood in advance. Yet both Ohio Right to Life and Right of Life of Cincinnati, which are unaffiliated, had their press releases out almost immediately after DeWine’s report was issued.
Julie Carr Smyth can be reached on Twitter at: https://www.twitter.com/jcarrsmyth.