WASHINGTON — The young woman visited U.S. Rep. Cliff Stearns last spring and what she showed him triggered a controversy that has brought abortion roaring back into the national political discourse.
Stearns, R-Ocala, watched a series of covert videos made by Lila Rose and her team at Liveaction.org that appeared to show Planned Parenthood workers advising a fake sex trafficker and prostitute how to obtain medical services. In New Jersey, an employee used a highlighter to circle an address where a 14-year-old could get an abortion.
"Undercover videos often times might lack a credibility," Stearns said in an interview Wednesday. But appalled by what he saw, and struck by Rose's dedication, he used his powerful committee perch in Congress to begin an investigation into whether Planned Parenthood uses taxpayer money for abortions.
The issue erupted this month when the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation said it was withdrawing financial support from Planned Parenthood because it was under investigation, only to reverse course amid fierce backlash.
For the second time in a year, Stearns was thrust into the national spotlight, a remarkable feat for a lawmaker who has gained little notice despite having served in the House for more than two decades.
Stearns seems both surprised and pleased by the uproar, which came coincidentally as controversy grew over a White House mandate that faith-based health care providers make contraception available, a decision that President Barack Obama relented on somewhat Friday.
And it came fortuitously for social conservatives who lost voice amid the intense focus on economic issues over the past two years. At once, the culture wars have returned.
"I'm not trying to in any way inflame this or in any way to exaggerate," said Stearns, who has been besieged with thousands of emails and phone calls from critics who accuse him of an ideological crusade. Within his district, he's gotten several calls of support.
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Asked about his underlying motivation, Stearns says, "I have a prolife record, but at the same time, I haven't been out there on that. I've got so many other issues."
Not least is his lead role in the probe of failed solar company Solyndra — a scandal that has yielded a stream of embarrassments for the White House and publicity for Stearns, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.
Soft spoken and deliberate, the 70-year-old Stearns has the demeanor you'd expect from someone from Ocala, horse country far removed from Florida's flashy urban centers. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and served in the Air Force before moving to Florida in the 1970s to buy a Howard Johnson motel.
He has had scrapes with notoriety, including passing a bill in 2005 that gave immunity to firearms makers when their weapons are used in crimes. Last year Stearns was ripped on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart for inserting a provision in a 9/11 compensation bill requiring victims be checked against a terrorist watch list.
Less visibly, he introduced a bill last year to increase federal funding for ultrasound equipment and free screening for pregnant women at nonprofit clinics. In November, the House passed his bill to allow people with concealed weapons permits to carry into other states.
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Stearns, who is married and has three adult sons, began the Planned Parenthood investigation while Solyndra was ramping up last fall, with a letter to the organization demanding reams of financial data.
Planned Parenthood began a petition campaign demanding he pull back. But it complied with the request, beginning in mid October.
"To date, we have provided over 8,000 pages of documents, and we continue to work with the committee to comply with its requests for information," said spokesman Tait Sye. "Planned Parenthood is one of the most trusted and important providers of health care for women in America and for many women, Planned Parenthood is one of the only affordable options for care."
Stearns has not held hearings, saying he is waiting for superiors in the GOP-controlled House to give him the go-ahead. He said he faced some reluctance to even begin the probe. House Speaker John Boehner's office did not respond to questions about the inquiry.
"They are deliberately just stalling and sitting on this so that they can use it as a stalking horse," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Democrat from South Florida. "This is a manufactured, trumped-up investigation that is completely meritless. It's an assault on women's health."
But another prominent lawmaker from Florida, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Miami, praised Stearns as a "principled leader."
"His decision to initiate a congressional investigation on Planned Parenthood is timely and underscores his commitment to our community," she wrote in a statement in November. "The American people should not be subsidizing an organization that not only misuses taxpayer funds, but also turns a blind eye to vulnerable girls who are being preyed upon."
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Planned Parenthood, no stranger to congressional scrutiny, has complained that the undercover videos are misleading, though it fired the worker in New Jersey and said it would retrain employees about dealing with minors. It said it informed the FBI about the possible sex trafficking.
Stearns is convinced of wrongdoing. "These Planned Parenthood clinics were aiding and abetting the sex trafficking of children," a charge the organization said is not true.
Still, he said the primary issue is the federal funding, questions which were prompted by the videos and a report by the antiabortion Americans United for Life that detailed allegations of financial and other abuse.
Planned Parenthood gets more than $350 million in federal funding annually. The money, by law, cannot be used for abortion and goes for cancer screenings, breast exams and tests for sexually transmitted diseases. But critics have long accused the clinics of mixing funds. Planned Parenthood performed 329,000 abortions in 2010.
House Republicans attempted last February to defund Planned Parenthood. They cited the same videos as Stearns. The effort failed.
Months later, Stearns announced his investigation. It caused an instant stir — Wasserman Schultz and several dozen other lawmakers sent him a scathing rebuke — but died down. Then, on Jan. 31, the Komen foundation made public its decision to strip Planned Parenthood of its funding.
Initially, Stearns' probe was cited as a cause.
"People don't understand that a congressional investigation doesn't necessarily mean a problem of substance," a board member, John Raffaelli told the New York Times. "When people read about it in places like Texarkana, Texas, where I'm from, it sounds really bad."
Before Komen reversed itself on Feb. 3, prominent Planned Parenthood advocates began a fundraising effort that met the $680,000 it was to lose.
"If they raised in 24 hours the entire amount of money that Susan G. Komen gave, then frankly they can probably raise all the money they need without federal taxpayers," Stearns said.
He said he still wants to press on with the investigation. "This is the right thing to do, and I would just hope the (GOP) leadership will have the wherewithal to let me have a hearing."
"It would be a healthy discussion," Stearns continued. "If you're going to get money from the government, then you're going to have to have accountability. The big issue is, is this money going for abortions other than the legal requirements? The rest of this is sort of making you wonder about the credibility of the organization. It makes you say, 'Where there is smoke, there might be fire.' "