Controversial Kline

Controversy seems to be following Phill Kline as he leaves state government and heads to his new Johnson County post.

Even as he prepares to leave the Kansas Attorney General’s office, Phill Kline continues to be a magnet for controversy.

In an unprecedented job switch, Kline was selected by the Johnson County Republican Committee to become that county’s district attorney, filling the vacancy left by Paul Morrison who defeated Kline in November’s election. Although only 35 percent of Johnson County voters supported Kline’s bid to continue as attorney general, a slim majority of the county’s Republican committeemen and committeewomen decided he was the best choice to fill the district attorney’s seat.

Their selection of Kline, who has almost no experience as a prosecutor, over an 18-year veteran of the Johnson County DA’s office led to speculation that committee members might be more interested in Kline’s political agenda – notably his vigorous opposition to abortion – than in his prosecutorial skills. The vote seemed to nullify any discussion that the Johnson County Republican central committee was attempting to move to the philosophical middle and ease the polarization that has plagued its organization.

Adding to the tale was another unusual action by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who declined to ratify the committee’s choice of Kline. The governor doesn’t have the power to nullify the choice, but in a prepared statement, she said, “Out of a deep and enduring respect for the will of the people, I cannot approve of Kline’s appointment.”

The very next day, the Kansas Government Ethics Commission said it would hold a public hearing on Kline’s alleged misuse of state computers in his failed re-election campaign. Kline is accused of harvesting e-mail addresses of people who had contacted his office for assistance and using them to send messages to “expressly advocate” his re-election, according to the ethics commission notice. Kline could face a fine of up to $5,000 for the violations.

Kline was fined $1,500 by the commission in March after reporting that a consulting firm working for his campaign had unintentionally solicited contributions from lobbyists, which is illegal.

Ironically, even if Kline is found in violation of the most recent charge and fined the maximum of $5,000, a total of $6,500 in fines would have seemed inconsequential if it had bought him a victory. It’s unfortunate that illegal practices that can have a significant impact on the outcome of a campaign don’t warrant a more meaningful punishment.

The transition that will put Morrison in the attorney general’s office and Kline in the Johnson County DA’s chair in January will be one of the most interesting in the state’s law enforcement history. Kline’s intention to continue his activist agenda seemed to be confirmed by his filing Thursday of criminal charges against a Wichita doctor who performs abortions. Residents of Johnson County and the rest of the state can only hope that Kline will rise above his controversial reputation and serve with the professionalism that his new job demands.