Stephan questions Kline fundraising

Former AG says church contribution strategy 'bothers me'

? Nearly three weeks ago, former Atty. Gen. Bob Stephan resigned as a special assistant to Atty. Gen. Phill Kline. At the time, Stephan wouldn’t say what caused him to leave, citing only “personal matters.”

Now he’s talking.

Stephan said Tuesday he resigned because he was upset by Kline’s strategy of using churches to raise campaign funds.

And he’s particularly upset about an instance where a church made donations to a business owned by Kline’s wife, Deborah.

“When you use your faith to shuttle money into your for-profit corporation, that bothers me. Especially when you are there, certainly giving voice to your faith, but with the credential of being the attorney general,” Stephan said in an interview with the Journal-World.

Kline’s campaign said there was nothing wrong with Kline raising campaign contributions through his church contacts, nor was there anything wrong with a church contributing to SWT Communications Inc., which is owned by Kline’s wife.

“SWT did receive what they call ‘love offerings’ from the churches,” Kline spokeswoman Sherriene Jones said. She said it is a common way for churches to provide an honorarium.

Stephan assists Kline

Kline, a Republican, is locked in a fierce election campaign against Democrat Paul Morrison, the Johnson County district attorney.

Stephan has been a longtime figure in Republican politics in Kansas.

He served as attorney general from 1979 to 1995. He threw his support behind moderate Republican David Adkins in the GOP’s 2002 attorney general’s primary race.

But after Kline, considered a conservative Republican, defeated Adkins and then won the general election, Stephan provided legal work for Kline on several issues.

His assistance to Kline was seen as a way for both sides of the GOP to reach out to one another.

“I was a good Republican,” Stephan said.

Church memo

But Stephan said he was upset to learn in September that Kline was using churches as part of a strategy to raise campaign funds.

In a memo Kline wrote to his campaign staff that was leaked then to the Journal-World, he told staff that after he spoke at a church, they needed to have church leaders line up contributors and organize volunteers.

The memo brought a round of condemnation from some organizations that said Kline was jeopardizing the churches’ tax-free status under Internal Revenue Service rules.

But Stephan said he was told by someone that after Kline spoke this summer at Light of the World Christian Center in Topeka, the minister asked congregants to write checks to the church, and then the church would write a check to SWT Communications, which produces radio spots about historical events that are sold across the state.

“That bothers me because the public doesn’t know who is giving money to Phill Kline,” Stephan said.

Stephan said he spoke with Kline’s deputy chief Eric Rucker and former communications director Whitney Watson.

Stephan said they told him there was nothing wrong with the practice and they weren’t going to change it, but that they wouldn’t put their statements in writing, like he had asked.

At that point, “I said, ‘Forget it, I’m off the train,'” Stephan said.

SWT donations

Jones, the spokeswoman for Kline, said it’s legal for the church to donate money to SWT Communications. She said the “love offerings” that day from Light of the World to SWT totaled $1,339.

Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Government Ethics Commission, said the state can’t tell churches who they can give money to as long as “they’re giving to the company, and that’s where it stays,” she said.

But, she said, it would be illegal for the church to give money to SWT Communications and for the company to then convert that to a donation to Kline’s campaign.

“You cannot give in the name of another,” she said.

Jones said that wasn’t happening.

During the year, the Kline campaign has paid $3,600 to SWT Communications to store campaign materials.

Jones said the money was paid to SWT to store campaign papers and office furniture in a metal building behind the Kline family home in Topeka.

In June, SWT made a donation of $1,181 to the Kline campaign.

“She wanted to contribute to her husband’s campaign,” Jones said.

Deborah Kline declined comment, referring questions about the payments to SWT to her husband. But he was on the campaign trail and did not return a message left on his cell phone.

Kline’s chief deputy Rucker didn’t return a phone call for comment. Rev. Greg Varney, the pastor of Light of the World Christian Center, also did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Stephan said he decided to publicly state his unease with Kline’s campaign fundraising after praying about what he should do.

“I’ve hesitated, frankly, because Republicans have helped me all my political career,” he said. “But there are some things you decide are important.

“This speaks to the candidate. I’ve just decided to take whatever is coming.”