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Texts Show Coordination And Controversy Over Anti-Vaccine Mandate Bill

Karen Kasler
Statehouse News Bureau

The bill that would ban all mandatory vaccines in Ohio brought the state into a harsh national spotlight, and made many people wonder where the proposal came from in the first place. Now, text messages between the bill’s sponsor and the chair of the committee that’s hearing it are showing sometimes careful coordination on the controversial measure. Statehouse correspondent Karen Kasler reports.

“We need to protect Ohioans from forced vaccination, whether it comes from the government, a school, an employer or even a local retailer. I am an advocate for informed choice.”

That was Rep. Jennifer Gross’ introduction to her bill that would ban all mandatory vaccinations in Ohio – from childhood shots to the COVID-19 vaccine. She spoke at the first hearing for her bill on May 18 before the House Health Committee, which is chaired by fellow Republican Scott Lipps.

Public records have confirmed texts provided to the Statehouse News Bureau showing Lipps and Gross texted about the bill many times before that hearing and after it.

Lipps has said he supports vaccines but co-sponsored a bill last session that would require schools to inform parents of their vaccination exemptions rights. He’s also been consulted by anti-vaccination groups such as Health Freedom Ohio.

Before that first hearing, Gross, who is a freshman legislator, texts Lipps that she has six co-sponsors. Lipps writes that he imagines it will be assigned to his committee but that he won’t co-sponsor it because it might show – quote “how I may work the bill”, which he calls “this important piece of legislation to protect our freedoms”.  Lipps also notes that keeping a ban on mandatory flu shots is important, saying it’s one of his “hotspots”.

Some texts seem emotional and even snippy. Lipps appears angry at times, accusing Gross of not controlling rumors among anti-vaccination activists and of coordinating with former Rep. Candice Keller, a far-right Republican who’s made misleading statements about vaccines and has threatened to find a primary challenger to Lipps. On May 3, Lipps advises Gross that “The last thing we need is the Speaker, or Leadership, digging their heels and listening to the Governor/media/hospitals.” Gross apologizes several times and writes in one text in May: “I adore you. And I am not lying to you and I tell you my very favourite chairman.”

The two coordinate messaging about the bill and witnesses, including Sherri Tenpenny, who Gross calls a “a world renowned physician” in a text on May 26. Lipps confirms Tenpenny will testify on June 8. Tenpenny did, making some wildly false claims about COVID vaccines.

“People who’ve had these shots and now they’re magnetized. There’s been people who’ve long suspected some sort of an interface - yet to be defined - an interface between what’s being injected in these shots and all of the 5G towers.”

Tenpenny, an osteopath from northeast Ohio whose website sells her anti-vaccine products, has been named one of the “Disinformation Dozen”, the 12 people behind about two-thirds of the false claims about COVID vaccines on social media. Tenpenny’s testimony got national attention, and she  was permanently suspended from Twitter not long afterward. The following week in committee, Lipps read a prepared statement that he said was needed to clear up things about the committee process, which he said works when all opinions are heard – “most especially those that disagree with you”. For example, he said, one person testified to suffering an injury from a vaccine.

“Is her story to be ignored because Dr. Tenpenny got off the rails or made statements that you disagree with?”

It should be noted that testimony before committees is not fact checked and there’s no requirement to provide sources or facts as backup.

Gross texted Lipps that day: “Do you want to talk about how today went?” That was the last text in the documents provided. Gross responded to Lipps’ comments in an interview in July.

Gross: “At any time, the chairman could have stopped the questioning and stopped the sensationalism, but he chose not to.”

Karen: “And indeed, there's reporting for the Ohio Capitol Journal that it was you who brought her to the committee and that he felt you were vehemently supportive of her testimony?”

Gross: “No, that was not true.”

Gross told me in the only call she says she’d returned about the texts that she should have done more research into Tenpenny, but that these weren’t the only text messages between her and Lipps. She said she feels all voices had a right to be heard on the issue, but she maintains she’s not an anti-vaxxer, and she points the finger at Lipps and his relationships with the anti vax groups. Gross also says it’s very challenging to work with Lipps, who is no longer her favorite chairman. He has not responded to a request for comment.

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