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Anatomy of a debacle

National | In Congress, the gruesome trade of baby body parts was supposed to be on trial; so why was the whistleblower placed on the defensive, his credibility in tatters?

Issue: "Court in the balance," April 1, 2000

By the time his telephone rang on Wednesday, March 8, Dean Alberty was already tortured with anxiety. Mr. Alberty, who from 1995 to 1997 had worked as a "tissue procurement technician" for a company called Anatomic Gift Foundation, was set to testify before Congress the following day. The topic: the illegal trade in body parts of aborted babies. As he envisioned the approaching hearing, he imagined an imposing semicircle of federal legislators staring down at him from behind microphones, a packed gallery, popping flashbulbs, and whirring cameras.

Mr. Alberty's mounting tension would have morphed instantly into black fear had he known he was walking into an ambush.

Congress had called the March 9 hearing in response to evidence of an illegal trade in fetal tissue presented by the pro-life activist group Life Dynamics, as well as corroborating independent reports by several news outlets, including WORLD (Oct. 23, 1999). Mr. Alberty, 34, first made news as the informant "Kelly," who in 1997 came to Life Dynamics with horrific stories of the

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for-profit distribution of baby brains, limbs, eyes, and organs by fetal tissue-brokers to medical researchers. (The group disguised Mr. Alberty as a woman to protect his identity.)

From 1997 through most of 1999, Mr. Alberty worked undercover, both in the Kansas Mid-Missouri Planned Parenthood abortion clinic and for Miles Jones, a fetal-tissue profiteer, gathering information on the new trade in human remains. But finally, his life had come down to this hearing. The next day, Mr. Alberty, who lives in Lee's Summit, Mo., would step forward to, in his words, "do the right thing."

But the right thing, it turned out, went dreadfully wrong. At the hearing, which was held by the House Subcommittee on Health and Environment, three witnesses besides Mr. Alberty were scheduled to testify: Lynn Fredericks, a former Planned Parenthood vice president who had compiled records of what she believed was a financially improper relationship between suspected baby-parts brokerage Anatomic Gift Foundation (AGF) and Kansas Mid-Missouri Planned Parenthood; AGF president James Bardsley; and Opening Lines' Dr. Jones, a Missouri pathologist who had boasted of his lucrative baby body-parts business on ABC's 20/20 only the night before.

The subcommittee was to consider a narrow question: Is fetal tissue being bought and sold in violation of federal law? But that question received scant attention during seven hours of testimony-particularly since neither Mr. Bardsley nor Dr. Jones showed up. Instead, a proceeding that should have blown the baby body-parts industry wide open dissolved into an open attack on Dean Alberty. Pro-abortion Democratic subcommittee members, apparently aided by Anatomic Gift Foundation, savaged Mr. Alberty's credibility under crossfire that eventually turned into a bipartisan turkey-shoot. When the smoke cleared, the attention of the nation was drawn effectively away from the message of an illegal trade in baby parts, and directed instead to a fallen messenger.

The orchestration of Mr. Alberty's fall began long before he arrived in Washington. The person who telephoned him the Wednesday before the hearing was Chicago attorney Fay Clayton. Ms. Clayton is a hardball, feminist lawyer who in 1998 successfully prosecuted a group of pro-life demonstrators on federal racketeering charges. Late last year, Anatomic Gift Foundation retained Ms. Clayton as counsel in a civil suit that alleged that Mr. Alberty, by recovering fetal tissue for Miles Jones, had violated a non-compete agreement he had signed when AGF hired him.

Michael Schwartz, an aide to Health and Environment Subcommittee member Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), believes the timing of AGF's lawsuit-and the nature of its eventual settlement-raises questions. Why did it take AGF two years to sue Mr. Alberty? Why did the firm file its lawsuit only after Congress had passed a resolution calling for hearings on the fetal-tissue trade? Perhaps most importantly, why did AGF settle the lawsuit in exchange for a vow of silence from Dean Alberty, when the company claimed in the suit that Mr. Alberty had injured AGF financially?

Under the terms of the out-of-court settlement, Mr. Alberty not only does not have to give AGF any money; he may also keep the non-fetal tissue recovery business he recently launched. That is, as long as he keeps his mouth shut. He is prohibited by the settlement from speaking to anyone-unless under subpoena by a court or Congress-about what he saw when he worked for AGF. As a consequence, GOP subcommittee members charged with preparing for the March 9 hearing were not able to pre-screen Mr. Alberty to determine whether he'd make a sound witness.

But that apparently did not stop Fay Clayton from conducting her own brand of pre-screening. Mr. Alberty says Ms. Clayton called him the day before the hearing to rehearse portions of his deposition with him over the telephone. She may have been legally able to do that because part of AGF's settlement with Mr. Alberty stipulated that AGF attorneys had 20 hours of access to follow up with him. Ms. Clayton did not respond to WORLD's phone call. "She told me that people were going to go to jail for whatever I said at the hearing the next day," Mr. Alberty says. "Then she read me portions of my deposition, and asked me to confirm that what she was reading was what I had said."

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