Posted: Friday, June 01, 2007
By Tim Carpenter
House Speaker Melvin Neufeld dismisses criticism of his political leadership on the abortion issue as theatrics by attention-starved legislators and money-hungry lobbyists.
More than a dozen House members and the group Operation Rescue are engaged in a relentless campaign to pressure Neufeld to unleash powers held by the House to investigate Dr. George Tiller, a Wichita physician who has drawn state scrutiny in the past for performing late-term abortions.
Neufeld rejected the proposed formation of a special House committee with subpoena power to go after records and testimony that might implicate Tiller in wrongdoing. The Ingalls Republican also blocked a House resolution capable of compelling Attorney General Paul Morrison to file criminal charges against Tiller.
“They wanted to raise that issue in the press. Not necessarily to be successful on the Tiller thing,” Neufeld said in an interview with The Topeka Capital-Journal. “It probably has to do with fundraising for the (Operation Rescue) organization, which is not one of my goals.”
He expressed similar frustration with House members who condemn his approach to abortion policy.
“I believe if you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it for results and make things happen, and not waste your time trying to get your name in the newspaper,” he said.
Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for Operation Rescue, said positions on abortion taken by Neufeld raise questions about the speaker’s ability to lead the House.
“We think members of the House need to seriously consider whether they can move forward with the current leadership,” she said. “When the majority party is frightened into paralysis by the minority party, it is time to make some changes.”
Neufeld can be forcibly removed by a vote of the Republican-dominated House, which appointed him in January to a four-year term as speaker that assumes he would win re-election in 2008.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said the friction was more about a power struggle in the Republican Party than a reasonable debate on abortion policy. Hensley said Neufeld was correct to leave Tiller to the criminal justice system.
“I don’t know why the Legislature needs to get involved in the judicial process,” he said.
Tiller has been the central target of anti-abortion forces in Kansas for more than a decade. Election in 2002 of anti-abortion Republican Phill Kline as attorney general raised expectations Tiller would be prosecuted.
Kline did pursue Tiller, but his case became mired in legal wrangling.
Kline eventually charged Tiller with 30 misdemeanors for allegedly performing 15 illegal late-term abortions in 2003 on patients 12 to 22 years of age without reporting proper details to the state. Attorneys for Tiller convinced a Sedgwick County District Court judge to dismiss all counts on procedural grounds.
Kline, defeated for re-election in November by Morrison, appointed a special prosecutor to appeal the district judge’s ruling. When Morrison assumed office in January, he fired the special prosecutor and asked the Kansas Supreme Court to dismiss the appeal.
Morrison launched his own investigation of Tiller’s medical practice, which is ongoing.
“I can assure you that if I find evidence that a crime has been committed, I will file new charges against Dr. Tiller,” Morrison said.
In March, skeptical legislators on the House Federal and State Affairs Committee voted 12-8 to approve a resolution designed to force Morrison to reinstate all 30 counts against Tiller.
Neufeld, who sets the debate agenda in the House, forbade a vote on the resolution by the full House.
The resolution was a waste of time, he said, because the criminal charges would have been dismissed again.
A coalition of vocal anti-abortion House members met with Neufeld on the final day of the 2007 session in May to persuade him to create an investigative committee with power to obtain testimony and records related to alleged misconduct by Tiller. Again, Neufeld declined. He said it was improper to instigate an open-ended investigation by the House. He suspected the committee would try to subpoena judges.
“If there was a defined goal and we knew what this committee was supposed to do, that’s one thing,” Neufeld said. “I don’t think it’s the speaker’s job to authorize witch hunts, which is what they were asking for.”
Five members of the rebel GOP faction protested by asking Neufeld to remove them from the House Federal and State Affairs Committee. After speaking behind closed doors, all but one withdrew the committee assignment request.
Only freshman Rep. Ben Hodge, R-Overland Park, insisted on being dropped from the committee.
“Our judicial system is covering up crimes,” said Hodge, who subsequently appeared on the Fox News talk show hosted by Bill O’Reilly to speak about the controversy. “Our attorney general is ignoring crimes, and I think it is our job to expose crimes.”
Neufeld said it was childish for a legislator to bail out of a committee responsible for an issue so important to that individual. Neufeld said it was the equivalent of announcing: “I’m not getting my way today. I don’t want to be a player anymore.”
Neufeld said he supported a measure adopted by the Legislature this session requiring more detailed reporting to state agencies by physicians aborting fetuses capable of surviving outside the womb. However, the proviso was vetoed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. A Senate override of her veto failed on the final day of the session.
The speaker said the Legislature should work in the 2008 session to broaden abortion reporting to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services, and the Kansas Board of Healing Arts.
“It’s always important to remember in politics, as in the rest of life, intimidation is not a winning strategy,” Neufeld said.
Tim Carpenter can be reached at (785) 296-3005 or firstname.lastname@example.org.