Panel: Suspend ex-AG Kline's law license in Kansas

October 13, 2011 - 5:40 PM

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — A professional ethics panel recommended Thursday that former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline have his state law license suspended indefinitely over his conduct during criminal investigations of abortion providers, saying he was "motivated by dishonesty and selfishness."

The three-member panel of the state Board for Discipline of Attorneys said Kline repeatedly misled other officials or allowed subordinates to mislead others, including a Kansas City-area grand jury, to further investigations of abortion providers. The panel also said Kline made a false statement to the office investigating the misconduct claims against him and even attempted to mislead the panel itself as it considered his case.

The panel determined some allegations in a complaint against Kline didn't represent violations of the state's rules for attorneys. Those included key criticisms of Kline and his subordinates over their handling of abortion patients' private medical records.

Yet the panel concluded Kline "engaged in a pattern of misconduct" while serving as Kansas attorney general in 2003-07 and as Johnson County district attorney for two years after he lost his bid for re-election to the state office.

"The Respondent's (Kline's) dishonest and selfish motives aggravate the misconduct in this case," the panel wrote in its 184-page report. "The Respondent failed to take any responsibility for his misconduct."

Kline has strongly disputed the allegations against him and called the complaint politically motivated. He did not return a message left on his cellphone Thursday. One of his attorneys, Reid Holbrook, declined comment, saying he hadn't had time to review the panel's decision.

The recommended sanction from a three-member panel of the state Board for Discipline of Attorneys reflects the board's belief that Kline repeatedly violated the state's rules for attorneys. But it stopped just short of recommending that he lose his law license, something state Disciplinary Administrator Stanton Hazlett had proposed in pursuing the case.

Hazlett didn't comment on the panel's decision in a brief statement afterward, only summarizing its contents and noting that the Kansas Supreme Court will have the final say on whether Kline will face sanctions. It will be at least six months before the court hears Kline's case.

An attorney whose license is indefinitely suspended can file a petition to have it reinstated, but such an action by the court is rare.

Kline's investigations of the late Dr. George Tiller, of Wichita, and a Planned Parenthood clinic in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park led to criminal charges. Tiller eventually was acquitted, but the Planned Parenthood case still is pending.

Kline is now a visiting assistant law professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., founded by late evangelist the Rev. Jerry Falwell. His Kansas law license has been inactive since October 2010.

Though Hazlett brought the complaint to the board, Kline has long faced fierce criticism from abortion providers, abortion rights advocates, Democrats and even some fellow Republicans. The allegation that the Johnson County district attorney's office misled a grand jury, empaneled in 2007 to review evidence against the Planned Parenthood clinic, came from the group's presiding juror.

Abortion opponents, however, have called the disciplinary process unfair. Five of the seven Kansas Supreme Court justices were appointed by Democratic governors who supported abortion rights, and the court suggested in 2008 that Kline's conduct could warrant sanctions.

As district attorney, Kline filed 107 criminal charges against the Planned Parenthood clinic in 2007, accusing it of performing illegal abortions and falsifying records. The clinic says the allegations are baseless, but a hearing to determine whether the case goes to trial — long delayed by legal disputes — is set for Oct. 24-26 in Johnson County District Court.

As attorney general, Kline pursued misdemeanor criminal charges against Tiller over late-term abortions performed by his clinic, but his case was dismissed for jurisdictional reasons.

Kline's successor as attorney general, a Democrat who supports abortion rights, filed other misdemeanor charges against the doctor. He was acquitted him in March 2009, two months before he was shot to death by man professing strong anti-abortion views.

Kline began the investigations of both providers just months into his single four-year term as attorney general. The clinics resisted his attempts to get information from patients' medical records, but eventually, the courts allowed him access to edited documents.

The disciplinary panel concluded that efforts by Kline and his aides to mislead other officials began early in the investigations. The panel also said Kline violated rules of professional conduct by appearing on Fox television's "The O'Reilly Factor" just before the November 2006 election to discuss his investigation of Tiller.