Kathleen Sebelius is the nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services in Obama's Cabinet. She has served as Kansas' governor since 2002 and before that was insurance commissioner and a state representative.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius confirmed Wednesday that Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider from Wichita, indeed had paid to get a seat at a dinner last year with her at Cedar Crest, the governor's mansion in Topeka.
But Sebelius is dismissing an anti-abortion group's assertions that Tiller had been an honored guest, and that the April 9, 2007, reception had been a "lavish secret party" for Tiller, his staffers and other doctors who perform abortions.
Instead, Sebelius said Wednesday, Tiller simply had purchased the dinner reception that had been offered as a prize during an auction fundraiser conducted as part of the Greater Kansas City Women's Political Caucus' own Torch Dinner. The governor, a Democrat who supports abortion rights, addressed the issue during an appearance Wednesday afternoon in Lawrence
No special connection. No personal invitation.
No big deal.
"I have offered, at the Torch Dinner in previous years, auction items to come to Cedar Crest," said Sebelius. "This was one of those years, and Dr. Tiller happened to be the bidder on this event.
"And it is not something that I invite the bidder to bid. It's not something that I choose the guests. It's been a tradition ... for a variety of groups whose causes I support: We offer an opportunity to come to lunch at Cedar Crest, come to dinner at Cedar Crest. The expenses are reimbursed, and this just happened to be one of them."
But political opponents aren't buying the explanation for the event, which came at a time Tiller was under investigation by the state attorney general's office regarding accusations that his clinic in Wichita had conducted illegal late-term abortions.
The attorney general's office later filed misdemeanor charges, and Tiller has denied breaking the law. The case is pending in Sedgwick County.
Wednesday's focus, however, remained on Sebelius' dinner reception, and Tiller's attendance.
"Her use of a taxpayer-funded facility to honor an individual whose money has fueled her campaigns and personal agenda is appalling," said Kris Kobach, chairman of the Kansas Republican Party. "She has abused her stewardship over the people's house. : Using it to host a notorious late-term abortionist is disgraceful."
News of the dinner with Tiller comes as Sebelius' stature on the national political scene picks up, especially as Sen. Barack Obama moves closer to securing the Democratic nomination for president.
Sebelius, an early backer of Obama, delivered the Democratic response to President Bush's State of the Union speech in January and increasingly has shown up on speculation lists of potential running mates for Obama. She is considered a political moderate, a Democrat elected in a Republican state.
Sebelius has vetoed legislation backed by abortion opponents, and earlier this month a Roman Catholic archbishop said that Sebelius should refrain from taking Communion - until and unless she takes "necessary steps for amendment of her life," such as publicly repudiating her support for abortion rights.
On Wednesday, Sebelius faced questions about the 2007 dinner after Operation Rescue - a Wichita-based organization that opposes abortion rights - posted photos from the event on the organization's web site.
Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, said that it was "laughable" for Sebelius to say she had no control over who would be at the party. Newman said the party was an indication of a broader relationship between Sebelius and the "abortion industry."
Sebelius, for her part, also dismissed criticism that the dinner reception had not been listed on her public schedule for the day involved. Virtually all receptions conducted at the governor's mansion, she said, never make it on the list.
"That isn't something that we do," Sebelius said. "A lot of what we do at Cedar Crest is private."