A Canadian businesswoman whose fertility-treatment agency has been all but shut down by an RCMP investigation referred clients to a U.S. broker involved in that country’s so-called “baby-selling” scandal, according to a Toronto lawyer who works with the Canadian. The American broker told Leia Picard, CEO of Canadian Fertility Consultants, that she was representing pregnant surrogate mothers who had been abandoned by the proposed parents and needed new couples to take the babies, said Cindy Wasser, a Toronto fertility lawyer.
Ms. Picard referred some of her clients to the Baltimore-based agent. But she almost certainly did not know the true story — that the surrogates were made pregnant without any would-be parents involved, and the gestating infants were then put on the market to desperate couples for up to $150,000, Ms. Wasser said. The broker from the U.S., a lawyer named Hilary Neiman, is currently serving a five-month prison term for her part in the black-market-baby scheme. “What Leia was doing from the goodness of her heart was giving people an option,” said Ms. Wasser, who said her colleague has always been completely professional and scrupulous. “It was really done to help people…. She would know nothing about what potentially had really happened.”
Last month, RCMP officers raided Canadian Fertility Consultants (CFC) offices in Brighton and seized computer equipment and files, in an investigation the force says concerns alleged violations of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act and the Criminal Code, which ban commercial payment for eggs, sperm and the services of a surrogate. It appears to be the first full-scale investigation launched since the fertility law came into effect eight years ago. No charges have been laid.
A surrogate mother who knows Ms. Picard said that the RCMP investigation was triggered by CFC’s work with Ms. Neiman. The company, which deals with clients from around the world, often had the American lawyer prepare legitimate surrogacy contracts for her clients, said the mother, who asked not to be named. Each referral would garner a fee from Ms. Neiman and the email trail of those transactions caught the attention of police, she said.
Ms. Picard was “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said the surrogate. “Had she not been referring to this particular lawyer, this [investigation] would never have happened.” Frank Addario, the Toronto lawyer representing Ms. Picard, said he would not comment at this point on any connection between his client and Ms. Neiman. Corporal Cathie Glenn, an RCMP spokeswoman, also declined to comment.
Meanwhile, Ms. Wasser said parents, surrogates and egg donors who work with CFC are becoming increasingly anxious as the police investigation wears on and expenses owed to the donors and surrogates go unpaid. Payments are impossible because police have seized all the company’s files. “It’s wreaking havoc in people’s lives in the worst way possible,” said Ms. Wasser, who has been advising several of the CFC clients. “God forbid if there is a miscarriage … The amount of damage being caused by this prolonged investigation is just unfathomable.”
Cpl. Glenn said she could not predict when the files would be returned, but said anyone affected or who had information on the case could contact her. “A lot of people never understand what it takes to carry out an investigation,” she said. “[But] I certainly understand the frustrations that might be out there.”
The baby-selling case in the U.S. broke last summer and concluded last month, with Ms. Neiman, a California lawyer and a third person involved in the scheme sentenced to prison. Surrogacy is legal in North America but both Canada and the U.S. require that the mother and the would-be parents strike an agreement before anyone gets pregnant.
As part of the American baby-selling scam, the lawyers had the surrogates undergo in-vitro fertilization in Ukraine, which has relatively lax rules, and then claimed the would-be parents had backed out, leaving an expectant surrogate without anyone to take the infant. The babies were offered up at six-figure prices.
Ms. Wasser said Ms. Picard of CFC referred some of the couples she represented to the U.S. lawyer after hearing about the supposedly abandoned surrogates. “Hilary had passed on these potential surrogacy options to put out to potential clients and other lawyers: ‘This terrible situation has happened here, a surrogacy has gone bad. Do you know anybody who’d be interested in taking on this baby?’ ” said Ms. Wasser. “[Ms. Picard] would pass this on and connect these people to Hilary.”
When the FBI later arrested the American lawyer, Ms. Picard was “as shocked as anyone,” said Ms. Wasser, who was a customer of CFC herself a few years ago and does legal work for other clients of the company now. Another Toronto lawyer involved in the fertility industry said she also recalls Ms. Picard saying at the time of the American broker’s arrest that she did not believe the woman could be guilty of such behaviour.
In San Diego, where FBI officers headed the baby-selling investigation, a spokesman said the bureau “was not commenting at this time” on any involvement it had in the Canadian investigation.
Now the issue becomes what Ms. Picard knew, if anything, about the origins of these babies. Again, this may very well be a situation where Ms. Picard was acting in a purely benevolent manner to help place what she believed were abandoned infants. Given this new information, it would appear that the RCMP may be investigating, among other things, whether there was any illicit financial remuneration paid to Ms. Picard in exchange for her assistance in finding Intended Parents for these “manufactured” babies.