Abortion Doctor Thanked Clinton at Coffee
By Lorraine Adams
When Wichita physician George Tiller made a $25,000 contribution last year to the Democratic National Committee, he asked a Kansas party fund-raiser for a special favor in return.
One of the few doctors in the country who perform third-trimester abortions, Tiller wanted a chance to personally thank President Clinton for 30 months of door-to-door protection by the U.S. Marshals Service. The service provided to Tiller, who was shot in 1993 by an antiabortion extremist, goes far beyond what the government has afforded to any other abortion provider faced with threats and on-the-job violence, interviews show.
Tiller got his wish and last June 17 was one of 13 guests at an intimate coffee hosted by the president. The chain of events and circumstances surrounding the coffee illustrate the 1996 campaign's unusual minuet of fund-raising and government action in a year when controversial figures such as Chinese industrialist Wang Jun, convicted felon Eric Wynn and others gained an audience at the White House as the party made a pell-mell effort to raise campaign funds.
Tiller abruptly lost his Marshals Service protection last month, shortly after Kansas news media reported his presence at the coffee.
"The decision to give him protection had absolutely nothing to do with political contributions," said Justice Department spokesman John Russell. "I don't think that the personnel that made the decision had any idea or asked any questions about political affiliations. The bottom line is we're trying to prevent a death -- in an area that is very volatile and where there has been precedence for death."
"Without commenting on the specific situation of this particular individual, we can state categorically that no government action ever resulted because of a campaign contribution," said White House special counsel Lanny J. Davis.
Tiller spokeswoman Peggy Jarman said that although the $25,000 contribution was Tiller's "special way of saying thank-you" for the marshal protection, he would have made the contribution even if he had not received the protection. She said Tiller also contributed because Clinton supports abortion rights and Republican presidential nominee Robert J. Dole did not.
Others saw the contribution differently. "One should never have to thank law enforcement," said Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-N.J.), co-chair of the House Pro-Life Caucus. "If this is a decision made totally on the basis of threat analysis, that's as it should be. But if it's made based on any other analysis, by a political operative, then that raises questions."
Antiabortion activists said Tiller's protection is objectionable because others in high-risk jobs do not receive federal protection. "Security is at banks, and those are paid for by the banks. Security at grocery stores are paid by grocery stores. Why should we pay for his security?" said David Gittrich, executive director of Kansans For Life.
Tiller has prospered as an abortion provider who performs a scarcely available service, attracting clients from around the world. In an interview last fall, he said he has performed abortions for high-profile Washington clients. Antiabortion activists said they believe that because Tiller is wealthy, he could afford to pay for his own security. Tiller built an 18-room, 8,500 square-foot house in Wichita assessed at $732,000. He owns his clinic, which is assessed at $502,000. He owns four cars, including a BMW convertible.
U.S. Marshals Service spokesman Bill Dempsey would not comment on Tiller, but said the decision to provide protection is evaluated by a task force of local and federal law enforcement officials. Dempsey said now only one doctor is under marshal protection.
Until recently, U.S. marshals were authorized to provide protection only for federal judges and witnesses. But in 1994, after the murder of physician John Britton and escort Jim Barrett at a Pensacola, Fla., abortion clinic, Attorney General Janet Reno ordered marshal protection at 24 clinics, including Tiller's.
Tiller's clinic, Women's Health Care Services in Wichita, received around-the-clock protection for about three months, and two marshals followed Tiller to and from work. The marshals followed Tiller when he went shopping on the way home from work and even on visits to his country club, according to antiabortion sidewalk counselors and law enforcement sources.
The threat against Tiller, according to Jarman, justified the protection. After the Pensacola violence, officials discovered the killer had a list of doctors to kill, and Tiller was second on the list.
In January 1996, the Marshals Service ended protection at 14 of the 24 abortion clinics but continued protection at Tiller's clinic. At the time, physician Joseph Booker of Gulfport, Miss., complained that his protection had been stopped, saying that he could not afford to hire private security. Booker did not return calls asking for comment.
Since the passage of the Federal Access to Clinics Act in 1994, incidents of violence at abortion clinics have dropped from 2,929 in 1993, the year Tiller was shot, to 455 last year, according to the National Abortion Federation. In last year's one attempted murder, a New Orleans physician was stabbed by a man who had a list of other clinics to target. That physician and the targeted clinics are not receiving marshal protection, according to Velvet Rieth, director of counseling at Causeway Medical Suite in Metairie, La.
Rieth, and doctors who have been targeted or whose colleagues had been murdered, said they have no problem with Tiller receiving the marshal protection when they did not. "He was shot. Heavens," said Liz Newhall, a Portland, Ore., physician who is on the American Coalition of Life Activists "Deadly Dozen" list. "Even though Shelly Shannon [Tiller's attacker] is in prison, her connections are still out and about."
The costs for private security are high. Warren Hern, a Colorado physician who specializes in third-trimester abortions and was also on the ACLA list, had marshal protection for five months in 1995. In a 1995 report to the Justice Department, he estimated he had spent $1 million on security since 1980. Alice Verhoeven, clinic director for Planned Parenthood/Preterm Health Services of Greater Boston, where two workers were slain and five injured by gunman John Salvi in 1994, estimated the clinic pays about $200,000 a year for armed guards.
Tiller also pays for private security; Jarman estimated he spends tens of thousands of dollars a year.
None of the physicians on the ACLA list, except for Tiller, made national political contributions in 1994 or 1996, Federal Election Commission records show. During the 1991 campaign, Tiller and his wife contributed a total of $14,400 -- to the Glickman for Congress Committee, Kansas Democratic State Committee and Republicans for Choice. Democrat Dan Glickman is now secretary of agriculture. Tiller's largest donation that year was $10,000 to the Kansas Democratic State Committee.
Last March, a Kansas DNC fund-raiser called Tiller to ask for a $15,000 donation, Jarman said.
"[Tiller] was sitting at his desk and he looked up at this memo above his desk, it was written in 1986 -- `Always say thanks in person.' So he said to the man who called him, `I would really like an opportunity to thank President Clinton in person for the marshal services that have been provided over the past number of months,' " Jarman said. The fund-raiser said he would see what he could do.
Tiller wrote a check, adding another $10,000 to his $15,000 pledge, "without being asked by anyone," Jarman said.
Tiller attended the White House coffee on June 17, 1996. Among the guests were an AIDS activist, two prominent Jewish leaders and a number of business executives. The conversation centered on international affairs, particularly Israel.
At the end of the coffee, when the opportunity came for shaking Clinton's hand, Tiller "did exactly what he went there to do, which was to say thank-you," Jarman said.
The marshal protection was interrupted for several weeks last October. The protection resumed in November, Jarman said, because the FBI learned of a threat against Tiller's life. Federal protection ended last month, shortly after a Kansas television station and the Wichita Eagle reported on Tiller's donation. Marshal spokesman Dempsey would not comment on why the protection ended. Jarman said the specific threat was considered to be gone.
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post