Unanswered questions persist in Kan. abortion case

AP News
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Posted: Nov 10, 2011 6:02 PM
Unanswered questions persist in Kan. abortion case

A state-requested investigation could answer questions that persisted Thursday about Kansas officials' shredding of documents that became key evidence against a Planned Parenthood clinic accused of violating abortion laws, after a judge dismissed the most serious charges because the records were destroyed.

The Planned Parenthood clinic in Overland Park still faces 58 misdemeanor charges of performing illegal abortions and violating restrictions on late-term procedures, which it denies. But a Johnson County district judge, at the district attorney's request, dismissed 49 charges on Wednesday, including 23 felonies, tied to allegations that the clinic had falsified copies of reports on individual abortions it had filed previously with the state health department.

The health department destroyed its copies of the same records in 2005, during the administration of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat who supports abortion rights and is now U.S. secretary of health and human services. The state attorney general's office obtained a set of copies in 2004, but destroyed them in 2009, during the tenure of Steve Six, another Democrat and abortion-rights supporter who was appointed by Sebelius to fill a vacancy.

Authorities in Topeka, at the request of current Attorney General Derek Schmidt, said after the judge's ruling Wednesday that they will investigate the records shredding to determine if any laws were broken. The documents were reports on individual abortions performed in 2003, filed by Planned Parenthood's clinic in Overland Park with the state health department, as required by law, and copies held by the attorney general's office under Schmidt's predecessors.

Six declined to comment Thursday in an email to The Associated Press. Sebelius also wouldn't comment, though a spokesman for her in Washington said Wednesday night that she had "no knowledge" of matters surrounding the case. A Planned Parenthood attorney said the records were destroyed following normal schedules for disposing of old documents, and prosecutors are raising the shredding as an issue to divert attention from weaknesses in their case.

The criminal case has been described by abortion opponents as the nation's first prosecution of a Planned Parenthood clinic and was filed in October 2007 by then-Johnson County District Attorney Phill Kline, a Republican whose investigations of abortion clinics brought him national attention.

Kline began investigating abortion providers in 2003, while he was the state's attorney general, and continued doing so after losing re-election in 2006 and becoming Johnson County's top prosecutor. When the health department destroyed its copies of the abortion reports, the clinic was under investigation. The attorney general's office, under Six, destroyed its set 18 months after Kline filed charges, also amid legal disputes over the case.

The case, already notable, became even more unusual for its protracted legal battles, in which the post-Kline attorney general's office sided with the clinic.

"All of this stuff demonstrates a coordinated effort to thwart a legitimate criminal investigation," Kline said Thursday. "It demonstrates corruption."

Sheriff Richard Barta in Shawnee County, home to the state capital of Topeka, has agreed to investigate the shredding, with the findings going to local District Attorney Chad Taylor. Schmidt asked for their help, noting that his office has a conflict of interest.

Clinic attorney Pedro Irigonegaray decried the focus on the documents' destruction, predicting that the investigation will find no wrongdoing. He suggested prosecutors, including Schmidt, want someone else to be responsible for dropping the 49 charges related to allegations of falsifying records.

"They just didn't want to fight this case on the merits because they knew they would have lost," Irigonegaray said. "They chose not to do this and blame a conspiracy."

As filed, the criminal case alleged that the Planned Parenthood clinic created false copies of the abortion reports in 2006 to replace ones it had illegally failed to maintain, after it was required to turn over edited medical files to a Shawnee County judge supervising Kline's investigation as attorney general.

If those charges had gone forward, current Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe would have compared the 2006 set with another set previously in the state's possession for physical differences. Howe did have his own set, also obtained previously by Kline, but he described them as only partial copies of copies.

Irigonegaray said the different sets of records don't match physically but contain the same information because clinic employees made copies by hand. Kline doesn't consider the explanation credible.

Howe said not having either the health department's originals or the attorney general's copies created "insurmountable" legal obstacles.

Schmidt's office referred questions about Irigonegaray's comments to Howe, who did not return a telephone message Thursday seeking comment.