TOPEKA, Kan. – The state's attorney general filed 19 misdemeanor charges Thursday against a high-profile abortion provider, alleging the doctor had an improper financial relationship with a consulting physician on late-term procedures.
Attorney General Paul Morrison alleges that Dr. George Tiller, of Wichita, had a financial relationship with Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus, of Nortonville, who consulted on all 19 abortions, which were performed in 2003. Tiller is among a few U.S. physicians who perform late-term procedures.
Kansas law allows some late-term abortions only if two doctors conclude it is necessary to prevent a mother's death or "substantial and irreversible" harm to "a major bodily function." The law requires that the two doctors have no financial or legal ties.
Under state law, Morrison said, only the physician who performs the abortion can be charged.
He filed his charges in Sedgwick County District Court. Each count is punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
"It's really pretty simple," Morrison told reporters during a news conference. "We're alleging there was a financial relationship between the two."
Morrison was not more specific about the relationship, except to say that it probably wouldn't have been apparent in public records.
Attempts Thursday to reach Neuhaus were unsuccessful. Tiller's attorneys, Lee Thompson and Dan Monnat, issued a written statement declaring their client's innocence.
"Today's announcement simply involves a difference of opinion between lawyers regarding unusual technicalities in Kansas abortion law procedure," the statement said.
Morrison, an abortion rights Democrat, made his announcement after months of attempts by abortion opponents to build public pressure on him to revive a case filed by his predecessor in office, Phill Kline, an anti-abortion Republican. Morrison unseated Kline in the November election and took office in January.
Anti-abortion groups were pleased to see a case filed against Tiller but questioned Morrison's conclusion that Kline's charges weren't valid. They also want Morrison to expand his investigation to include records Kline hadn't sought.
Kline fought a high-profile, two-year battle to get the records of patients from two clinics that perform abortions, including Tiller's, saying he was trying to prosecute rapists, sex offenders and doctors who were involved in illegal abortions or failed to report sexual abuse.
Abortion-rights supporters complaints that Kline was invading patients' privacy grew stronger days before the election, when Fox News host Bill O'Reilly described parts of the medical records on his show. Kline was interviewed by O'Reilly during the segment, but a Kline spokeswoman denied that he was the one who leaked the documents.
"They need to look at records at 2004, 2005 and 2006, to keep probing, because if even Morrison sees the smoke, there's a big fire going on underneath it," said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life, the state's largest anti-abortion group.
In December, Kline filed 30 misdemeanor charges against Tiller in Sedgwick County, alleging the doctor performed illegal late-term abortions and failed to properly report details about the procedures to state health officials. A judge dismissed the charges on jurisdictional grounds.
On Thursday, Morrison said none of those charges were valid and the case was driven by Kline's political agenda.
"We spent the few months of this investigation looking at the 30 charges that my predecessor had filed, and we found that he was 0-for-30 on those," Morrison said in an interview following his news conference.
Morrison also said that unlike Kline, he had the written consent of local prosecutor Nola Foulston, who successfully asked a judge to throw out Kline's charges because he didn't have her permission to file his case.
Morrison criticized Kline harshly, saying he based his charges on incomplete or incorrect information — and misread the law restricting late-term abortions.
Kline has said Morrison's comments about him are false. On Thursday, he said he was reviewing Morrison's latest statements and would respond.
Morrison's announcement Thursday was a surprise. A day earlier, his spokeswoman had confirmed that Morrison would not pursue 15 reporting-related charges Kline had filed.
Also, abortion opponents had said repeatedly that they didn't think he would prosecute Tiller because a political action committee formed by Tiller was involved in efforts independent of Morrison's campaign to defeat Kline.
"We did spend a great deal of time on the investigation trying to make a determination of whether or not there were any other violations of Kansas law, because that is what we promised to do," Morrison said.
The abortions in question in both Morrison's and Kline's charges involved women who were more than 21 weeks pregnant and whose fetuses were able to survive outside the womb. Under a 1998 law, that's when two doctors must reach a conclusion about the mother's potential death or irreversible injury to "a major bodily function," which has been interpreted to include mental health.
Kline had alleged Tiller violated the law by providing abortions to patients who were suffering from problems such as anxiety and single-episode depression. He hired a former psychiatry director at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore as an expert witness, who said none of the diagnoses fit the law and that most psychiatrists, including himself, thought no psychiatric reasons could justify an abortion.
But Morrison said in justifying such an abortion, a patient's condition when she consults with the abortion provider isn't the issue — only the potential problems she faces if her pregnancy continues. The law also doesn't say that doctors have to give a more specific justification than preventing serious and permanent harm, he said.
"If you read it, it's very clear," Morrison said during his news conference.
Culp said Morrison's reading of the law isn't what legislators intended.
"It's bizarre, and nobody in the whole country would read it that way," Culp said.
Some legislators already were interested in reviewing the law following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in April upholding a federal ban on a procedure known as "partial-birth" abortion. Legislative leaders plan to meet July 6 to decide whether to have such a review before lawmakers reconvene in January 2008.