Abortion foes question dropped charges against clinic

Clinic once faced charges accusing it of performing illegal late-term abortions

By John Hanna
Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Abortion opponents have turned on a Kansas prosecutor who abandoned a high-profile criminal case against a Planned Parenthood clinic, with some publicly questioning his explanations for why he dropped the most serious charges.

Anti-abortion activists had seen Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe as sympathetic and well-intentioned, and Kansans for Life, the group most active in state politics, even endorsed him after he defeated incumbent Phill Kline, its favored candidate, in the Republican primary in 2008. But another group, Operation Rescue, has called for Howe to resign in the weeks since the last charges were dismissed against the clinic in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park.

The clinic once faced 107 charges, including 23 felonies, accusing it of falsifying documents and performing illegal late-term abortions, allegations it strongly disputed. Kline filed the case in October 2007, garnering national headlines because advocates on both sides of the abortion debate believed it was the first criminal prosecution of a Planned Parenthood clinic.

“This case could have been fully prosecuted a long time ago,” said Troy Newman, Operation Rescue’s president.

Howe, who’s running unopposed for a second term this year, said he’s not surprised by the criticism, nor is he backtracking from the reasons he’s given publicly for dismissing the charges.

As for Newman’s criticism, Howe said, “Those who know all the facts know that is absolutely inaccurate.”

Kline contends Howe didn’t aggressively pursue leads that would have bolstered the case or led to a renewed investigation of the clinic, issuing an 1,100-word email statement, in part to detail arguments that Howe didn’t understand the case or abortion law. Planned Parenthood officials contend Howe’s actions show the charges were unwarranted.

Howe also has described himself as an abortion opponent, but anti-abortion groups long considered Kline a leader for their movement. In 2007, Kline addressed the National Right to Life Committee’s annual convention, calling abortion a slaughter of innocents and adding that Kansas’ soil was “stained red.”

“Operation Rescue’s alarm is a response to false accusations raised by Mr. Kline,” said Pedro Irigonegaray, the clinic’s lead defense attorney. “They were misled.”

The criminal case had its roots in an investigation of abortion providers begun by Kline while he served as Kansas attorney general in 2003. Kline lost his race for re-election to state office in 2006 but served as Johnson County district attorney from 2007 through 2008, which allowed him to pursue charges against Planned Parenthood’s clinic.
“The truth in Kansas is clear for those who want to see it,” said Kline, now a visiting assistant law professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

The criminal case’s torturous no-trial history was marked by legal disputes and multiple Kansas Supreme Court rulings. Howe inherited the case from Kline upon taking office in January 2009.

He asked a judge in November to dismiss the 49 most serious charges, including the felonies. He dropped another 26 misdemeanor charges on Aug. 3, and two weeks later, the remaining 32 misdemeanors.

The most serious charges alleged that the clinic failed to maintain records on individual abortions performed in 2003, as required by law, then fabricated a set when ordered to produce them in 2006 for Shawnee County District Judge Richard Anderson, who was supervising the investigation of abortion providers by Kline, then attorney general. The clinic said no wrongdoing occurred, but a trial likely would have included a comparison of what the clinic produced for Anderson with copies of the reports submitted to the state in 2003.

Various copies of the reports existed, but Howe contends he didn’t have clean, complete copies of what the clinic submitted to the state in 2003. He largely escaped criticism from abortion opponents in November after he said in court that the set of copies he could have used was “destroyed” by the attorney general’s office in April 2009, under Steve Six, an abortion rights Democrat.

An external investigation later concluded that the attorney general’s office didn’t destroy any documents involving the Planned Parenthood case, but Howe said last week: “I stand by my previous comments.”

Some abortion opponents, including Kline, accept that crucial documents were destroyed but argue Howe still could have pursued the felony charges. Kline said the situation was “harmful to the case but not fatal,” saying Anderson had a set of copies that Howe could have used.

Irigonegaray argued months ago that Howe had cloaked his true motives to avoid criticism from abortion opponents and had the documents he needed to pursue the felony charges. Newman now accuses Howe of lying about his motives for dropping the felony charges.

Peter Brownlie, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said criticism of Howe for dropping the case was inevitable because abortion opponents would accept nothing short of “us being put out of business.”

“What Operation Rescue and their allies, etcetera, cannot accept is the fact that’s been true from the beginning, that there’s never been any substance to the charges,” Brownlie said.