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Robert Stephan, longest serving attorney general in Kansas history, dies at 89

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Former Kansas Attorney General, Robert Stephan.
AP News
Former Kansas Attorney General, Robert Stephan.

Former Kansas Attorney General Robert Stephan has passed away at the age of 89. Stephan served as attorney general from 1979 to 1995, when a sexual harassment scandal ended his political career.

Robert Stephan, a Wichita native, spent a majority of his life after graduating from Washburn University’s School of Law fighting for the rights of crime victims and for stricter consumer protections.

Stephan once said that his drive to pursue such issues came as part of his own childhood trauma involving his abusive alcoholic father.

Stephan served as judge in Sedgwick County before becoming attorney general in 1979.

Many of those whose lives he touched, like his former spokesperson Mary Trisch, say that trauma was what led Stephan to bring kindness and empathy for his fellow Kansans into his work.

“It shows in the way he got out of that situation," said Trisch. “It shows how he treated other people while serving as a judge. He couldn't make everything right for people. That's what made it so important to him, that we treat people fairly and kindly.”

During his 16 years as Kansas attorney general, Stephan would accomplish his goal expanding victim rights with the passing of the Crime Victims' Bill of Rights in 1989.

The bill allowed for victims of certain crimes to be present in courtrooms during sentencing and mandated that they be “treated with courtesy, compassion and with respect for their dignity and privacy.”

Stephan, a Republican, was held in high regard by conservative and liberal voters alike due his work on the bill.

Kansas News Service correspondent Jim McLean, who covered Stephan’s work for many years, believed that Stephan’s popularity made him destined to pursue a higher political office.

“Most people assume that he would be governor at some point,” said McLean. “We all assumed that that's where he was headed. Until he ran into a bit of a scandal, a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by former clerk in his office that led to a couple of years of legal difficulty.”

The former clerk filed two lawsuits against Stephan, accusing him of sexually harassing her and of breaching contract when he revealed the amount of the settlement in the first lawsuit. And a grand jury alleged that Stephan lied when he testified in the second.

While Stephan was acquitted in 1995, his political career never recovered, eliminating his ambitions for the governor's seat.

Despite the scandal, many of those who worked for Stephan still remember him as a role model and true servant of the people.

“He wanted to fight for justice,” said Trisch. “He wanted people to be treated kindly, and to be able to have fairness in their lives.”

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