Government & Politics

Planned Parenthood lawyers to question Parson aide in dispute over Missouri license

Lawyers representing Planned Parenthood can question Gov. Mike Parson’s campaign manager under oath about his involvement in the decision earlier this year to deny a new license to the state’s lone abortion provider, an administrative hearing commissioner ruled last week.

Commissioner Sreenivasa Rao Dandamudi dismissed a motion by the state attorney general’s office to block a subpoena of Steele Shippy, who served as communications director for Parson’s office for 14 months before becoming his campaign manager.

Planned Parenthood contends the Department of Health and Senior Services decision to deny its license to perform abortions was politically motivated, and that Shippy’s testimony could shed light on the reasoning behind the denial.

Dandamudi’s decision could have been appealed to state court, but a spokeswoman for the governor’s office said late Friday that attorneys on both sides are “currently working to schedule Shippy’s deposition.”

The attorney general’s office, which is representing the Department of Health and Senior Services, argued that the subpoena of Shippy was intended to harass the governor’s campaign manager because Planned Parenthood supports his likely Democratic opponent in 2020, state Auditor Nicole Galloway.

Additionally, the attorney general’s office said Shippy had no formal role with the Department of Health and Senior Services, making any testimony he may provide inadmissible.

But Dandamudi wrote in his order that evidence provided to the commission showed Shippy “edited documents, through Google Docs, regarding the department’s Statement of Deficiencies that was issued to Planned Parenthood.”

“The department,” Dandamudi wrote, “later denied Planned Parenthood’s application to renew its abortion facility license on the basis of these deficiencies.”

Dandamudi said evidence also showed Shippy handled, and responded to, Sunshine Law requests that were directed towards the department.

“Shippy’s knowledge of the investigation may not be merely hearsay, or second-hand information,” Dandamudi wrote. “The e-mails provided thus far indicate that the discovery sought could lead to information regarding actions taken by Shippy, on behalf of the department, during the department’s investigation of Planned Parenthood.”

Shippy referred questions to the attorney general’s office, which declined comment.

Kelli Jones, the governor’s current communications director, said Shippy never edited the statement of deficiencies. She provided emails the commissioner cited in his order that show Shippy editing a press release in Google Docs about the ongoing legal battle with Planned Parenthood.

Jones said the emails show that Shippy “was operating under his normal course of duties assisting with press releases while he worked in the governor’s office.”

Planned Parenthood’s request to question Shippy also focused on a May conference call he organized the night before a judge was expected to issue temporary restraining order blocking the state from shutting down abortion access at the St. Louis clinic.

Shippy insisted that the call, revealed by The Star, was not arranged by the governor’s office. It was intended to coordinate messaging with a handful of Republican legislators and anti-abortion activists.

During the call, Shippy also delved into some details about what the department was investigating. The emailed invitation to the call ended with the hashtag “#ShutThemDown.”

Without Shippy’s testimony, Planned Parenthood’s attorneys argued, they can never know “what was discussed on this conference call, and more importantly, what Mr. Shippy learned from the department.”

Planned Parenthood sued the Department of Health and Senior Services in St. Louis City Circuit Court in May, just days before the agency allowed its license to expire without making a decision on renewal. Judge Michael Stelzer said the case should be taken to the Administrative Hearing Commission (AHC) which hears disputes between state agencies and individuals or businesses.

AHC hearings work similar to court trials, though the commission is a part of the executive branch. Commissioners are appointed by the governor for six-year terms and their decisions are subject to judicial review.

Dandamudi was appointed in 2010 by then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Oct. 28. The clinic will be able to offer abortion services while the case is pending.

Among the main reasons the department provided in denying Planned Parenthood’s license is that it was unable to interview physicians who provided care at the clinic.

Two physicians, employed by Planned Parenthood, were interviewed by the agency. But five others who worked at the clinic through teaching hospitals and medical schools, have refused.

Planned Parenthood says it can’t compel the five physicians to submit to interviews because they are not employees.

Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood announced it will expand across the border to Illinois with a new 18,000-square-foot facility about 13 miles from its current clinic.

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Jason Hancock is The Star’s lead political reporter, providing coverage of government and politics on both sides of the state line. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he has written about politics for more than a decade for news organizations across the Midwest.