Archive for Saturday, December 30, 2006

Morrison: Reorganizing AG office top priority

December 30, 2006

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— Paul Morrison isn't expecting to get the press his predecessor as attorney general did. The Democrat who becomes the state's chief law enforcement official on Jan. 8 also isn't planning to have a big legislative agenda in 2007.

Instead, Morrison, who unseated Republican Phill Kline after the roughest political contest in at least a generation, says he will focus on reorganizing the office he'll inherit. He contends Kline made the office too political and sees much work to do.

It's been a bittersweet - and odd - transition for Morrison, who's served 18 years as Johnson County district attorney. Ironically, his victory over Kline allowed the defeated Republican to claim the district attorney's job.

During an interview Friday, Morrison said he'll bring a

hands-on style from the district attorney's office into statewide office.

"The office is going to go from having a highly political leader who is seldom there and who has spent a lot of time, I think, on a political agenda, to a more hands-on lawyer who is very interested in public policy issues that the attorney general's office is responsible for," he said. "They'll see a lot of me, and I'll be in court a fair amount as well."

Kline said Friday he wouldn't respond to Morrison's criticisms. Asked to sum up his four years, Kline said his office successfully prosecuted 50 murder cases, put more than 100 Internet predators behind bars, won key victories in water litigation and successfully argued two big cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, one upholding the state's death penalty law.

"I was proud and honored to be a part of all that," Kline said.

Taking a different tack

It's difficult to imagine Morrison getting the same national notoriety Kline has seen. The Republican's work on crime and other issues frequently was overshadowed by his conservative politics - no more so than in his final weeks in office.

Kline attempted to launch a criminal case against Wichita abortion provider George Tiller, alleging that the doctor performed illegal late-term abortions.

He filed 30 misdemeanor charges in Sedgwick County District Court, only to have a judge dismiss them, telling Kline he didn't have jurisdiction because he didn't get the district attorney's consent first.

Abortion opponents repeatedly have said they don't trust Morrison to investigate Tiller aggressively and believe his election means there'll be no criminal case. Kline said the Democrat had demonstrated "an entire lack of objectivity."

But Morrison dismissed such talk: "We'll assess that case, just like we do any other case, and if there's been a violation of the law, I assure you I'll pursue it."

'People voted for change'

The Tiller case isn't as pressing an issue for Morrison as reorganizing the attorney general's office.

The office has 117 employees and a budget of $16.9 million. As attorney general, Morrison also will oversee the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which has an additional 322 employees and a budget of $16.5 million.

Amid talk among Republicans of several dozen firings and voluntary departures, Morrison said he expects about three-quarters of the staff in the attorney general's office to remain after he is sworn in.

But that doesn't mean the office will look the same in six months.

"Our focus is going to be a lot different than Mr. Kline's," he said. "In short, people voted for change, and that's what we're going to give them."

Consumer protection, civil cases

Big changes already seemed inevitable for the office's Consumer Protection Division.

Morrison repeatedly criticized Kline for hiring as its director Bryan Brown, who'd been arrested a dozen times in the 1980s and 1990s while participating in anti-abortion protests. Morrison and other Kline critics noted that restitution to consumers dropped from an average of $3.2 million a year under Kline's predecessor to about $922,000 in fiscal 2005.

In his division's most recent annual report, Brown defended its work, saying it had stopped pursuing nuisance cases and wasn't "overreaching."

Morrison said he also wants to beef up the division that handles civil cases, saying Kline farmed out too much work to private attorneys.

It was a bone of contention during the campaign. Kline released figures in April showing that the $2.15 million he spent on outside counsel and litigation fees from December 2004 through December 2005 was less than the figures for two of the last three full years of his predecessor's tenure.

Morrison said Friday: "I want to stress that there's a lot of good people at work up there. I think what the office has suffered from more than anything else the last four years is a lack of leadership."

Proposals

Although Morrison won't give legislators a large package of initiatives, he said he will have a few proposals. For example, he said, he'll ask them to fix a technical flaw in a law passed this year to lengthen sentences for sex offenders who prey on children, to see that those who commit crimes before 1994 don't escape harsher penalties meant for second-time offenders.

"We've got a few projects this session, but probably not as many as normal," he said. "You're not going to see a massive, massive legislative agenda this year, just because we've got other things to do."

In Johnson County

Meanwhile, Kline is preparing to take over Morrison's current job.

Because Morrison won five terms as district attorney as a Republican, then switched parties to challenge Kline, the GOP filled the vacancy Morrison's victory created. A majority of some 600 party activists picked Kline.

"It's been bittersweet at best," Morrison said. "I'd be a liar if I said that I wasn't disturbed by what's happened in Johnson County."

Paul Morrison

Age: 52. Born June 1, 1954, in Dodge City.

Hometown: Lenexa.

Occupation: Johnson County district attorney; attorney general-elect.

Political party: Democratic.

Education: Graduated from Washington High School, Kansas City, Kan., 1972; undergraduate degree in criminal justice, Washburn University, 1977; Washburn University Law School, 1980.

Political career: Johnson County assistant district attorney, 1980-89; district attorney, 1989 to present; Kansas Sentencing Commission vice chairman; switched from Republican to Democrat in 2005 to run successfully against Republican Attorney General Phill Kline; he becomes attorney general Jan. 8.

Personal: He and his wife, Joyce, have three children, Mary Amanda, Drew and Cole.

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