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Univ. of New Mexico paid $600K in ‘fetal tissue’ legal bills

August 20, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — The University of New Mexico racked up more than $600,000 in legal bills as it navigated a special congressional committee’s investigation into how it procured fetal tissue for research, according to documents obtained by the Albuquerque Journal.

University officials say the expenses were necessary to protect the university, the Albuquerque Journal reports .

Documents obtained through a public records request by the Journal showed the university used the Chicago-based law firm McDermott Will & Emery, spending $611,446 on what the invoices call the “fetal tissue inquiry.”

In 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to convene the “select investigative panel” to investigate fetal tissue transfers and related matters. The Republican-led committee’s $1.5 million investigation ultimately alleged that UNM violated state law.

The committee sent what it called “criminal referrals” to New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas in June 2016. Balderas announced earlier this year that his office’s review found UNM had not broken the law.

The same referrals were sent to the FBI headquarters and the bureau’s relevant field offices “for review and any action deemed appropriate,” according to a December 2017 letter from a U.S. Department of Justice official to U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce.

Pearce, who represents New Mexico’s southern congressional district and is running for governor, had last September asked U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “investigate wrongdoings” between UNM and Southwest Women’s Options, according to his congressional website.

But a UNM Health Sciences Center spokeswoman told the Journal last week that the FBI has never contacted the university as part of a fetal tissue investigation. The partially redacted McDermott invoices provided to the Journal do not mention interactions with the FBI.

Southwest Women’s Options is an abortion clinic in Albuquerque.

McDermott’s last billable activity on the fetal tissue inquiry occurred on Jan. 29, 2018, according to the invoices.

UNM’s fetal tissue research has attracted intense scrutiny from anti-abortion activists, and safety is one reason UNM says it was considered necessary to spend money on specialized counsel. UNM also lacked internal experience dealing with Congress, UNM spokeswoman Alex Sanchez said, noting McDermott’s help “preparing, presenting and meeting the expectations” of the panel.

More than 100 pages of invoices show the firm’s work on UNM’s behalf included communicating with the congressional panel and its staff; reviewing, preparing and redacting documents to submit to the panel; corresponding with and providing information to the state attorney general’s office; and helping UNM respond to media inquiries. Bills show regular coordination with UNM’s in-house attorneys and that the firm also updated UNM’s Board of Regents on the work.

“Appearing before Congress is an area that we at the (Health Sciences Center) are not as familiar with and we needed assistance from trained professionals,” Sanchez wrote in an emailed response to Journal questions.

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Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com

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