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Planned Parenthood clinic to keep doors shut, for now

September 21, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

An Illinois city may continue to block the opening of a Planned Parenthood clinic while officials investigate whether the abortion-rights group lied to obtain its building permits, a federal judge ruled Thursday.

Planned Parenthood used the name Gemini Office Development in applying for permits to build the $7.5-million clinic in Aurora. As recently as March, the organization used the Gemini name on a permit application and added: "Tenant is not determined . . . unknown at this time."

At least four other permits dating to March 2006 refer to the tenant or property owner as Gemini, according to city spokeswoman Carie Anne Ergo.

Aurora officials have asked the county prosecutor to review those permits for possible criminal violations, such as fraud.

Steve Trombley, who directs Planned Parenthood's Chicago affiliate, has acknowledged that his organization used the Gemini name to mask Planned Parenthood's involvement in the hopes of preventing antiabortion pickets. But he said Planned Parenthood never tried to hide the building's purpose.

Architectural plans, reviewed by city officials, showed surgical rooms, bulletproof construction material and a windowless first floor.

"Whether or not that information raised red flags, it was not passed up to any of the city officials or elected officials," Ergo said. "Hindsight is 20/20."

The 22,000-square-foot clinic -- one of the largest ever built by Planned Parenthood -- was designed to provide abortions through the mid-second trimester as well as birth control, cancer screenings and gynecological exams.

Planned Parenthood disclosed its intent to run the clinic over the summer, as construction neared an end. Antiabortion protesters in Aurora, about 35 miles west of Chicago, responded with protest marches and around-the-clock pray-ins.

Last month, after protesters jammed a City Council meeting until 2 a.m., Aurora officials ordered an independent investigation of the permitting process.

Two reports stemming from that investigation are scheduled to be turned over to the county prosecutor today. He, in turn, is expected to take about a week to review possible criminal charges.

Until that process is complete, Aurora officials are withholding the clinic's operating permit. That means the clinic, which had scheduled its first patients for Tuesday, is unlikely to open before early October.

U.S. District Judge Charles Norgle on Thursday upheld Aurora's right to withhold the permit for now.

Calling Aurora "ground zero" in the fight for abortion rights, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America sent out a mass e-mail asking for more donations and volunteers to support the Chicago affiliate.

"We are facing no less than the most emboldened protest by the most radical anti-choice people I've ever encountered," Cecile Richards wrote.

For their part, the protesters were elated. "We're having a big party," said Joe Scheidler, president of the Pro-Life Action League. He's invited nearly 60 activists from across the country to join him for a strategy session this weekend in Chicago, he said.

"We're learning from each other what really bothers Planned Parenthood," Scheidler said. "Some of the things that have worked here will be tried around the nation."

But at the two-hour hearing, Norgle cautioned against either side declaring victory.

He left room in his ruling for Planned Parenthood to return to court -- with fresh arguments -- to demand its operating permit. "By no means," the judge said, "is this case over."

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stephanie.simon@latimes.com

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