TOPEKA, Kan. - An anti-abortion group released photos Wednesday of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius with a prominent abortion doctor at what it called a "lavish secret party" at the governor's official residence, but her office said the doctor bought the reception at a political group's fundraising auction.
Dr. George Tiller was under investigation by the attorney general's office at the time of the Cedar Crest event, held April 9, 2007. The Wichita abortion provider is one of the few U.S. doctors who perform late-term abortions.
Sebelius, a Democrat who supports abortion rights and has repeatedly vetoed legislation sought by anti-abortion groups, has been mentioned as a potential running mate for Barack Obama, her party's likely presidential nominee.
Operation Rescue posted the photos on its Web site and described the event as a "lavish secret party" for Tiller, his staff and several other doctors who perform abortions.
"We've known all along that there's very close ties," said Troy Newman, Operation Rescue's president. "But I was shocked that the governor would put herself in jeopardy by being so closely associated with this man, particularly in the governor's mansion."
Sebelius spokeswoman Nicole Corcoran said Wednesday that the reception Tiller attended had been offered as a prize at a fundraising auction for the Greater Kansas City Women's Political Caucus. The caucus advocates electing women who support abortion rights to public office and holds an annual dinner to raise money each fall.
"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."
Corcoran said Tiller purchased the reception at one of the dinners, but she didn't know when or how much he paid.
Julie Burkhart, chief executive officer for ProKanDo, an abortion-rights group Tiller helped form in 2002, wasn't available for comment, but said she was preparing a response to Operation Rescue's statements.
In April 2007, Tiller was under investigation by the attorney general's office over allegations that his clinic had performed illegal late-term abortions.
The attorney general's office eventually filed 19 misdemeanor charges, alleging that Tiller failed to get a second opinion from an independent physician for some procedures, as required by law. Tiller has denied wrongdoing and the case is pending.
Rumors about an event for Tiller and his staff at Sebelius' official residence have circulated among abortion opponents for weeks. On Monday, commentator Robert Novak said in his column that Sebelius had invited Tiller and his staff to a party at the residence, labeling her "the national pro-choice poster girl."
Earlier this month, The Associated Press requested copies of the governor's schedule and a schedule of events at Cedar Crest for the first half of 2007. The AP also is seeking copies, if any exist, of e-mails between Sebelius and several staff members and Tiller or Burkhart.
Newman said Operation Rescue filed a request under the Kansas Open Records Act for documents including a list of events at Cedar Crest in March and April 2007 in which meals were served. He said only four events were listed, and Tiller wasn't specifically mentioned.
The photos do not show a meal being served, but they do show what appears to be a dessert table. Operation Rescue obtained a copy of the $761 caterer's bill; The governor's office said the caucus reimbursed the state for the cost of the event.
Tiller, his wife and his medical practice contributed $12,450 to Sebelius' campaigns when she was running and serving as the state's insurance commissioner, but have given nothing to her since 2001. Sebelius was elected to her first of two terms as governor in 2002.
Earlier this month, the Roman Catholic archbishop for northeast Kansas said Sebelius, who is Catholic, should stop taking Communion until she repudiates her stance and her past actions.