Monday, February 21, 2011

Phill Kline faces ethics hearing over his anti-abortion efforts

Phill Kline returns to Kansas today to answer allegations that he misled judges and mishandled evidence in his dogged pursuit of abortion clinics.

Hanging in the balance is Kline’s reputation, his law license and the final verdict on his long investigation of Planned Parenthood and Wichita abortion provider George Tiller, who was slain in 2009.

Kline, a Republican and former attorney general and Johnson County district attorney, now teaches law at Liberty University in Virginia. His Kansas law license is inactive, but a finding that he violated his professional ethics could make it more difficult for him to join the bar in another state.

Kline last week declined to publicly discuss the case against him. So did his attorneys and a publicist representing him.

But Kline has no shortage of vocal defenders. Anti-abortion groups such as Kansans for Life and Operation Rescue contend the hearings are an attempt to tarnish Kline’s work and protect abortion providers from prosecution.

Mary Kay Culp, director of Kansans for Life, said she wished the courts were as concerned about the criminal allegations raised by Kline as they are about the ethics accusations facing him.

“If this were any other man, if this were any other issue, I don’t think this would be happening,” Culp said of today’s hearings.

A panel of three lawyers will sit in judgment of Kline. Seven days have been set aside for the hearing, which is drawing national attention.

Disciplinary administrator Stanton Hazlett will present evidence in support of the allegations, and attorneys for Kline will mount his defense. Witnesses — including a judge who oversaw parts of Kline’s investigation — will testify.

If the panel finds Kline in violation of ethical rules, it will recommend any discipline to the Kansas Supreme Court. Punishment could range from censure to disbarment.

Kline’s investigation of Planned Parenthood and Tiller began shortly after he became attorney general in 2003 and continued when he became district attorney in 2007. Kline accused the abortion providers of violating state law and covering for pedophiles by not reporting pregnancies of underage girls. He sought medical records of former patients to prove his case.

The ethical allegations against Kline include charges that he:

•Told the Supreme Court that his investigation wasn’t seeking identities of specific women who received abortions. But in 2005, investigators allege, Kline’s staff recorded the license plates of visitors to Tiller’s clinic and subpoenaed the guest list from a hotel frequently used by patients.

•Ignored warnings by the court not to talk about the case by discussing it on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show.

•Mishandled redacted medical files by storing them in an open garage, a private vehicle and the dining room of an investigator. The complaint also criticized Kline’s staff for copying the records at a Topeka Kinko’s on Kline’s last day as attorney general.

•Misstated the whereabouts of the records. Kline took some copies of the Tiller records with him when he became district attorney but denied doing so before a Shawnee County judge and the Supreme Court.

•Selectively presented information to a Johnson County grand jury investigating Planned Parenthood.

•Relied on data that Kline’s staff knew to be flawed to justify the investigation before a judge.

“This disciplinary proceeding is not about whether abortion is right or wrong,” Hazlett wrote in a letter outlining the allegations to Kline’s attorneys. Instead, “We will argue that Mr. Kline’s strong personal anti-abortion beliefs interfered with his judgment.”

In his formal response, Kline denied any wrongdoing and said his actions were consistent with traditional investigative methods.

Indeed, an internal report by Hazlett’s own investigators seemed to clear Kline of wrongdoing. The 2008 report was prepared by a Topeka attorney tasked by the disciplinary administrator with reviewing the evidence against Kline.

“After reviewing the substantial documentation in this case, it is the opinion of these investigators that there is not probable cause to prove that Phill Kline violated any of the rules of ethics,” the report concluded.

Kline is regarded highly by many anti-abortion groups. A webcast last week designed to bolster support for Kline — and raise money for his legal defense — included testimonials from leaders in the anti-abortion movement and conservative politicians such as Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. About 4,000 people listened in.

Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, said Kline was being judged for his anti-abortion views. He worried that the hearings might scare other prosecutors away from investigating abortion clinics. He said he had little doubt that the panel would recommend disbarment.

“This is just a political vendetta against a man with the audacity to take on Planned Parenthood,” Newman said. “How many times are they going to crucify this guy?”

Hearings on the allegations were initially set for last year but were delayed at Kline’s request to give his lawyers more time to prepare.

By David Klepper, 785-354-1388,


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