NEW YORK — Planned Parenthood, a perennial protest target because of its role in providing abortions, has notified the FBI that at least 12 of its health centers were visited recently by a man purporting to be a sex trafficker but who may instead be part of an attempted ruse to entrap clinic employees.
In each case, according to Planned Parenthood, the man sought to speak privately with a clinic employee and then requested information about health services for sex workers, including some who he said were minors and in the U.S. illegally.
Planned Parenthood's vice president for communications, Stuart Schear, said the organization has requested an FBI probe of the man's claims and has already fielded some initial FBI inquiries. However, Schear said Planned Parenthood's own investigation indicates that the man has links with Live Action, an anti-abortion group that has conducted previous undercover projects aimed at discrediting the nation's leading abortion provider.
Lila Rose, Live Action's founder and president, described Planned Parenthood's assertion as "very interesting." She declined to confirm or deny that the clinic visits were part of a Live Action operation, but did indicate in a telephone interview that an undercover videotape project of some sort was in the works.
"The story that speaks loudest will be in the evidence," she said. "I can't comment until we release the visual evidence."
The visits were made between Jan. 11 and Jan. 15 to health centers in Virginia, Indiana, New York, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and Arizona. Among them was a clinic in Tucson, Ariz., which Planned Parenthood said was visited on the 15th, a week after the shooting rampage in that city that critically injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Last week, Planned Parenthood Federation of America president Cecile Richards wrote to Attorney General Eric Holder summarizing the visits and requesting an FBI investigation. If the man's assertions were true, she wrote, they would indicate possible violations of federal laws dealing with interstate sex trafficking of minors.
However, Richards said the visits could be part of a hoax resembling some past actions by anti-abortion activists.
"Once inside, these people have recorded 'undercover' videos of their conversations with our clinic staff and then selectively and maliciously edited the videos," she wrote. "This may be happening once again. If so, this kind of activity should be firmly condemned."
Justice Department spokeswoman Alisa Finelli, as well as FBI spokesmen in Washington and Arizona, said that under standard policy they could not comment on whether an investigation had in fact been launched. Schear said there had been some preliminary contacts with the FBI, which was asking for information from the clinics that were visited.
According to Schear, the man who visited the clinics initially presented himself as a patient seeking treatment for a sexually transmitted disease, elaborating on the purported sex ring only after getting into a private setting with a staff member. Because of strict patient-privacy laws, Schear said Planned Parenthood could not reveal the man's suspected identity or even describe his looks or apparel.
"On the face of it, we have to take it very seriously, and that's what we've done," Schear said. "At the same time, as we gathered more information, it came to our attention that this person has some connection with Live Action."
Schear said the man's image was picked up by video cameras at some of the clinics, and that led to a tentative identification and an apparent link with Live Action. Schear said Planned Parenthood would make the videos available to law enforcement authorities if they made a formal request.
Schear said he and his colleagues found it striking that the clinic in Tucson was among those visited, so soon after the shooting rampage. "It shows how far some people will go," he said.
Bryan Howard, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Arizona, said staff at the clinics in Tucson and Scottsdale were in a state of vigilance when the visitor showed up on Jan. 15, because of alerts that had come from affiliates in the East about suspicious visits earlier that week. Also, Arizona clinics had been the target of a Live Action operation in the past.
"So there's a high degree of awareness here," Howard said. "When someone walks through the door, it is possible they're not there for the reason they say they are."
Howard said his staff at both clinics notified local police.
Lila Rose began infiltrating abortion clinics in 2006. One of her early collaborators was James O'Keefe, who later became famous for wearing a pimp costume in a video that embarrassed the community organizing group ACORN.
After forming Live Action, Rose gained prominence with a series of undercover videos in which she posed as a girl in her early teens who'd been impregnated by an older man. The aim was to portray Planned Parenthood staff as willing to ignore laws that required the reporting of cases of suspected statutory rape.
In Indiana, one clinic employee was fired and another resigned after Live Action videos were released.
In December, Live Action announced that it was preparing to launch several major new investigations during 2011 and said it had received a $125,000 gift to finance the operations. It did not identify the source of that gift.
Rose has said her goal is to unnerve Planned Parenthood employees and eventually put them out of business.
"We will work to de-fund them in every state wherever it is possible, to de-license them and to expose them," she told the conservative Value Voters Summit in October.
"The other part of it, too, is to create controversy within the organization, keep them on their toes," she said. "We need to help them feel that fear."
Planned Parenthood has been a polarizing organization ever since its precursor, a clinic in Brooklyn, was founded in 1916 by pioneering birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger. In recent years, it has been a lightning rod for protests because of its familiar name and two unswerving policies — support for abortion rights and a belief that adolescents, as well as adults, have a right to contraceptives and candid, confidential information about sex.
It operates more than 800 health centers across the country, which offer a range of health and family planning services to about 3 million patients a year. The centers accounted for 324,008 abortions in 2008, about one-fourth of the national total.
Howard, referring to the Jan. 15 visits, said he was saddened by what he believes was a renewed attempt to besmirch Planned Parenthood.
"We feel we get punched around a lot, but we come back up, and I think our tenacity is frustrating to some people," he said.