The White House said Friday it had been "pleased" to have Phill Kline's name submitted as a potential U.S. attorney for Kansas, even though an aide to one of the state's two Republican senators said the Bush administration had found his qualifications lacking.
Leroy Towns, longtime chief of staff for Sen. Pat Roberts, said the Bush administration had questions about Kline's qualifications to be the top federal prosecutor in Kansas and asked the state's senators to recommend two other candidates.
Roberts and Sen. Sam Brownback submitted Kline's name for the U.S. attorney job in March 2001. Six months later, Kline withdrew himself from consideration.
Towns' comments, made Friday during an interview with The Associated Press, gave ammunition to Kline's opponents in the contentious primary campaign for state attorney general who are questioning his fitness for the job.
But on Friday, after Towns' comments first appeared in The Kansas City Star, White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said: "The White House typically requests that three names be submitted for each U.S. attorney position. We were pleased Phill Kline's name was one of the three names. We respect his decision to withdraw his name to run for attorney general."
Kline said Roberts' aide was wrong and he withdrew from contention for the federal post to run for attorney general of Kansas. Towns said Friday the White House statement was consistent with his remarks.
"We were told early on that the White House questioned his qualifications and said he was not up to the standards of the other U.S. attorneys that they had asked for," Towns said. "And two more names were sent down."
In the GOP attorney general's race, Kline, a former state representative and congressional candidate from Shawnee, is running against state Sen. David Adkins of Leawood and Topeka attorney Charles McAtee. The winner of the Aug. 6 primary election will face Democrat Chris Biggs, the Geary County attorney.
Adkins supporters have questioned whether Kline is qualified to serve as attorney general because Kline let his law license lapse three times, renewing it again in January 2001. Kline supporters have questioned Adkins' fitness, citing a 1994 ethics sanction of Adkins by the Kansas Supreme Court.
On Friday, Kline maintained the questions about his qualifications or the federal job were generated by Adkins' campaign.
"It's just his desperate politics," Kline said. "He's losing. I withdrew on my own consideration to run for attorney general. Anything to the contrary is false."
For his part, Adkins said it does raise questions that Kline's name never went to the U.S. Senate as a potential U.S. attorney.
"It's hard to know what led to those circumstances," Adkins said. "I do think it's something Kansans should know."
While Kline's foes have questioned his fitness for the U.S. attorney's job, no one has said what specifically was wrong with his qualifications. Information that is turned up during the FBI background check for potential nominees is confidential and is released only to the potential nominee.
In March 2001, the same month Kline was recommended, the White House wrote Roberts to say the president would follow custom and would "generally defer to the slates and preferences of senators."
But within two months of Kline's nomination, Towns said, the White House had voiced concerns and requested Brownback and Roberts recommend two additional candidates for the job.
Brownback and Roberts in May 2001 wrote the White House to say Kline remained their first choice. But they also recommended Jim Flory, who served as the office's acting U.S. attorney during part of 2001, and Paul Morrison, the longtime Johnson County prosecutor.
"We would have been very surprised at that point, had Kline been nominated," Towns said.
Brownback declined to comment on Friday. He has said Kline would have made an outstanding U.S. attorney and he recently endorsed Kline for state attorney general.
In November, two months after Kline announced his withdrawal, Brownback submitted another Kansas candidate, Eric Melgren, a Wichita lawyer and a longtime friend, for the job. Melgren was nominated and confirmed within weeks.