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Missouri Senate panel may try to jail Nixon cabinet member for contempt

Department of Health and Senior Services Director Gail Vasterling
Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services

A Missouri Senate committee is threatening legal sanctions against a member of Gov. Jay Nixon's cabinet after the first day of hearings into the operations of Planned Parenthood in Missouri.

Committee chairman Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, on Thursday asked Department of Health and Senior Services Director Gail Vasterling to disclose the name of the hospital that has a working agreement with Planned Parenthood's Columbia clinic.  Vasterling refused.

"Why are you hiding the identity of the hospital that the law requires be disclosed as being the facility?" Schaefer asked.  "Ambulances have to go there, doctors have to have admitting privileges; it is an absolute public health issue. Why is that confidential and somehow privileged information?"

Vasterling replied, "I'm not hiding the name of the facility. ... I'm attempting to comply with a state statute that talks about what are closed records with regard to inspections of hospitals and long-term care facilities and ambulatory surgical centers; that's what I'm attempting to do."

Schaefer and Vasterling's disagreement centers on Missouri statute 197.477, which details which information can and cannot be made public from inspections of health care facilities.  The hearing recessed for roughly 20 minutes to allow Vasterling to consult with the department's legal counsel, which she did.  When the hearing resumed, she continued to refuse to identify the hospital in question.

Schaefer then laid out an ultimatum:  provide documentation identifying the hospital to the committee by 5 p.m. Aug. 21 or face legal sanctions.  Those sanctions would either be judicial intervention, i.e., a lawsuit, or holding Vasterling in contempt, which could result in a $300 fine and/or 10 days in jail.  Either sanction would likely be levied at the committee's next meeting, scheduled for Aug. 25.

"We simply cannot have state agencies violating state law, coming in under a Senate-issued subpoena and not producing documents that clearly they are required by law to produce," Schaefer said.  "There has to be a consequence for that."

Schaefer is seeking the Republican nomination for Missouri attorney general next year.

The Senate Interim Committee on the Sanctity of Life was formed in the wake of publicity sparked by videos produced by an anti-abortion group. Those groups allege Planned Parenthood clinics in other states have been selling the remains of aborted fetuses to research companies. Laura McQuade, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, released the following statement two hours before the start of Thursday's hearing:

"We believe that, despite having conclusive evidence that Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri does not donate tissue for medical research, Missouri State Senator Kurt Schaefer has spent valuable taxpayer dollars to convene an Interim Senate Committee with the sole purpose of spreading anti-abortion views and furthering an extreme political agenda to end access to safe, legal abortion in the state. Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri follows all laws and has the highest medical and ethical standards. Public records demonstrate this and confirm that we do not participate in tissue donation programs. This plain fact underscores that these state legislative committee meetings are about political grandstanding, not facts. This is yet another orchestrated attempt to restrict access to safe, legal abortion in Missouri and to the needed services Planned Parenthood has provided for nearly 100 years. The political attacks claiming that Planned Parenthood profits in any way from tissue donation or illegal activity are simply not true. Some Planned Parenthood affiliates in the country have programs for women and families who want to donate tissue to leading research institutions that will use it to help find treatment and cures for diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. We are proud to support women and families making their own health care decisions and we are proud to be there for them by providing the full range of high quality reproductive services. Planned Parenthood will always fight to ensure that these services are legal and available."

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.