Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was put on the defensive Wednesday by the release of photos showing her shaking hands with abortion provider Dr. George Tiller during an event last year at her official residence.

    The anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, which published the photos on its Web site, called the April 9, 2007 event a “lavish secret party” for Tiller, his staff and several other abortion providers. But Sebelius’ office said the doctor made the highest bid at a political group’s fundraising auction to win the right to have the reception at Cedar Crest.


Gov. Kathleen Sebelius was put on the defensive Wednesday by the release of photos showing her shaking hands with abortion provider Dr. George Tiller during an event last year at her official residence.
    The anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, which published the photos on its Web site, called the April 9, 2007 event a “lavish secret party” for Tiller, his staff and several other abortion providers. But Sebelius’ office said the doctor made the highest bid at a political group’s fundraising auction to win the right to have the reception at Cedar Crest.
    Tiller was under investigation by the attorney general’s office at the time over allegations that his Wichita clinic had performed illegal late-term abortions. He now faces 19 related misdemeanor charges.
    Sebelius has positioned herself successfully as a Democratic moderate in a Republican state and has been mentioned as a potential running mate for Barack Obama, the party’s likely presidential nominee.
    She’s also been a strong supporter of abortion rights and has repeatedly vetoed legislation sought by anti-abortion groups. Earlier this month, the Roman Catholic archbishop for northeast Kansas publicly called on the governor, who is Catholic, to refrain from Communion until she repudiates her stance and past actions.
    She immediately drew criticism over the reception. House Speaker Melvin Neufeld, an Ingalls Republican who opposes abortion, called the event “unacceptable,” and state GOP Chairman Kris Kobach, labeled it “disgraceful.”
    “Sebelius has sunk to a new low,” Kobach said.
    Operation Rescue published 13 photos from the event on its Web site. President Troy Newman said the group obtained them from someone who attended, whom he declined to identify.
    Six photos show Sebelius standing next to a person identified as Tiller, and two of those photos show them shaking hands. Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran later confirmed that it was Tiller and that the reception had occurred.
    Three photos show Sebelius holding a red T-shirt commemorating a “Trifecta 2006,” referring to her re-election that year and the election of a Democratic lieutenant governor and attorney general.
    Corcoran said the reception had been offered as a prize at an earlier fundraising auction for the Greater Kansas City Women’s Political Caucus.
    “Governor Sebelius donates auction items like a dinner or reception to organizations whose causes she supports,” Corcoran said. “We do not control who purchases it.”
    Newman and other abortion opponents scoffed at the explanation because the women’s caucus advocates electing women who support abortion rights.
    Telephone messages left at the women’s caucus offices in Kansas City, Mo., were not returned. An attorney for Tiller declined comment, and Julie Burkhart, the chief executive officer of ProKanDo, an abortion rights political action committee Tiller formed in 2002, did not return telephone messages.
    Tiller is among a few U.S. physicians who performs late-term abortions, and abortion opponents protest regularly outside his clinic.
    State ethics commission data shows Sebelius received $12,450 from Tiller, his wife or his medical practice from April 1994 through September 2001, when she was running for and serving as insurance commissioner.
    The last contribution came while she also was raising money for a potential run for governor in 2002 but before she’d officially kicked off her campaign. She’s not received any contributions directly from Tiller or ProKanDo since then.
    In late June 2007 — less than three months after reception at the governor’s residence — the attorney general’s office filed the misdemeanor charges against Tiller in Sedgwick County.
    Those charges allege Tiller failed to obtain a second opinion for some late-term abortions from an independent physician, as required by state law. Many abortion opponents believe he should face more serious charges.
    “Now we have the photographic evidence that there is an extremely close relationship between the governor and the abortion industry in Kansas,” Newman said.
    Rumors about an event for Tiller and his staff at Cedar Crest have circulated among abortion opponents for weeks. Conservative commentator Robert Novak said in his Monday column that Sebelius had invited Tiller and his staff to a party at the residence, labeling her “the national pro-choice poster girl.”
    In April, a year after the event, Operation Rescue filed open records requests with the governor’s office, seeking documents about any events at which meals were served at Cedar Crest in March and April 2007.
    Earlier this month, The Associated Press requested copies of the governor’s schedule and a schedule of events at Cedar Crest, as well as any e-mails between Sebelius and several staff members and Tiller or Burkhart. On Wednesday, the governor’s office released schedules from mid-March to mid-April 2007 and said there were no e-mails.
    The records show an hourlong event at Cedar Crest on April 9, 2007, designating it the “Women’s Political Caucus Auction Reception.” The copy provided to Operation Rescue also contained an additional notation: “(reimbursed by the Greater Kansas City Women’s Political Caucus)”
    Newman also provided AP with a copy of the caterer’s bill, which was $761 and said the reception was for 25 guests.
    Corcoran said Sebelius donated her time and the use of Cedar Crest to the women’s caucus but had it reimburse the state for catering costs because it is a political group.
    The women’s caucus operates a political action committee, which is required under Kansas campaign finance laws to file reports each year. Those reports show that it has had a fundraising dinner in Kansas City in September at least each of the past three years.
    According to the report covering the 2005 dinner, ProKanDo paid the group $2,500 that year. Neither the group nor Tiller is listed as a donor for 2006.
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    On the Net:
    Operation Rescue: http://www.operationrescue.org
    Dr. Tiller’s clinic: http://www.drtiller.com
    Governor’s office: http://www.governor.ks.gov