Crime & Courts

A.G. hopefuls trade jabs during debate

Candidates for Kansas attorney general remained civil but took their shots Thursday during a debate in Wichita.

Democratic incumbent Steve Six tried to portray his Republican opponent, Derek Schmidt, as a "career politician" seeking to promote his party's agenda, instead of enforcing the law.

Schmidt, the Senate majority leader, referred to Six as an appointee of Democratic leaders, first as a judge then as attorney general.

Dennis Hawver, the Libertarian candidate, acknowledged he had little chance of winning the election in November but wanted to promote his party's position of individual responsibility and limiting government's role.

One of the biggest points of contention during the debate came over Kansas not joining 21 other states in challenging this year's federal health care reform bill in court.

Six said joining the lawsuit would be another example of a political agenda that has cast a shroud over the office.

He referred to former Attorney General Phill Kline's pursuit of abortion clinics. Kline's investigation into Wichita abortion provider George Tiller, who was shot to death in his church in 2009, has been criticized. Kline also faces ethical complaints before the state's Board for Discipline of Attorneys.

"We have had a history in this Attorney General's Office that I've worked for three years to turn around," Six said. "And that is a history of pursuing political agendas that are important to that particular attorney general. And it has driven the office off the cliff.

"Consumer fraud went unchecked, Medicaid fraud went unchecked as particular personal agendas were pursued."

Six said he and his attorneys studied the lawsuit and determined it would be too expensive to join a legal action that they decided had little chance of success.

Schmidt said he would join the lawsuit.

"I do not believe standing up and fighting for the right of Kansans to decide Kansans' destiny is a personal political agenda," Schmidt said.

"Tomorrow the power of the federal government, if left unchecked today, will be much broader," he said.

Hawver said the states don't need the U.S. Supreme Court to decide the case. The state, Hawver said, "can just say no."

"We're not going to allow you to enforce it here," he said. "We have the power to do this, people, if we have the guts. We have the power to be a sovereign state, if we decide to do so."

The debate was sponsored by the Wichita Crime Commission.

Six said he cut taxpayer funds in the attorney general's budget by 43 percent, supplementing it with financial forfeitures from criminal activity.

The incumbent also talked about his recovery of $46 million from Medicaid fraud prosecutions. He also talked about his work to crack down on child pornography and online child predators, through Operation Child Shield investigations.

Schmidt focused on his 10 years in the Senate, helping pass public safety laws, particularly Jessica's Law, which provides harsher penalties for child sex offenders.

"We gave them the tools they are now using," Schmidt said of Six's office.

Schmidt also took credit for a picketing law aimed at stopping controversial Kansan Fred Phelps from protesting at funerals of fallen soldiers.

That drew criticism from Six, who said Schmidt pushed through a law that was later ruled unconstitutional.

"When you don't have that experience — and that's what this election is about is the right legal experience — then you make mistakes like that," Six said.

Six was talking about a so-called "judicial trigger" provision which would have allowed the law to take effect only after a state or federal court ruled it constitutional.

Schmidt said the provision ruled unconstitutional was needed to persuade some lawmakers to vote for the bill.

Knowing how laws are made, Schmidt said, would help him as the state's top law enforcer.

"Eleven years ago, I stood in the Attorney General's Office," he said, referring to his job as an assistant attorney general.".. My Democrat opponent was out practicing plaintiffs' law. There's nothing wrong with that. But let's not pretend to be something we're not."

Six said Schmidt's tenure in the Senate resulted in increased state spending.

"He has increased the legislative budget 43 percent during the time he's been majority leader," Six said. "He's handed out bonuses to his staff. My opponent is on the capital restoration project — $150 million over budget — as he has remodeled his office. He's painted the ceilings with gold. He's bought new carpets, while Kansans are struggling."

Hawver said voters need to decide what they want the attorney general to enforce.

"As attorney general, if I were elected by some stroke of fortune, I would do what I can to make sure government does not encroach on my personal freedoms," he said, "and by doing that I would be protecting your personal freedoms."