by Ivan Foley
The agency in charge of investigating professional misconduct by attorneys in the state has advanced a complaint against Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd to the next level in the process.
The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel (OCDC) says it has determined probable cause exists to believe that Zahnd is guilty of professional misconduct.
The matter next will go in front of a disciplinary panel. That panel, comprised of two lawyers and one non-lawyer, will hear evidence and recommend to the Missouri Supreme Court what discipline, if any, to impose.
Any final action will lie in the hands of the Missouri Supreme Court. That court is authorized to review the panel’s decision and impose any punishment ranging from a public reprimand and suspension to disbarment.
The Landmark this week acquired the names
of the three people who have been appointed to serve as the disciplinary hearing panel in Zahnd’s case. Those three are:
Keith A. Cutler, an attorney with the James W. Tippin and Associates of Kansas City; Thomas P. Schult, an attorney with Berkowitz Oliver LLP of Kansas City; and Robert Michael Ford of St. Joseph.
Cutler has been appointed as presiding officer of the panel.
The hearing date will be set within 60 days, with at least a 30 day notice to the parties involved. The panel must issue a written decision within 30 days after the completion of the hearing.
The rules require that the panel issue a decision “with findings of fact, conclusions of law, and if misconduct is found, recommend discipline,” says a letter to the panel from Melinda J. Bentley, legal ethics counsel for the Advisory Committee of the Supreme Court of Missouri.
The complaint against Zahnd was filed by John P. O’Connor, a criminal defense lawyer.
The complaint surrounds the alleged conduct of Zahnd’s office in the criminal case of Darren L. Paden of Dearborn. Paden pled guilty to sexually molesting a young girl for more than a decade. He was eventually sentenced to 50 years in prison.
O’Connor accuses Zahnd of confronting and pressuring witnesses. After Paden, a former chief of the volunteer Dearborn Fire Department, pled guilty to abusing the girl starting from the time she was five years old, around 16 friends and relatives wrote letters to the judge pleading for leniency. The letters mentioned Paden’s work in the community, and asked Judge James Van Amburg to take that into account.
According to the complaint, before Paden was sentenced Zahnd allegedly told his assistant prosecutors to meet with the letter writers. According to the allegation, Zahnd wanted his prosecutors to ask the letter writers to withdraw their letters. If they refused, according to the complaint, Zahnd’s office would cross-examine the letter writers at the sentencing hearing.
Some of the writers were subpoenaed by Zahnd’s office. Allegedly, an assistant prosecutor told at least one of the letter writers that if the letter was not withdrawn, the letter writer would be named in a press release suggesting the writer supported child molestation.
The judge eventually sentenced Paden to two consecutive 25 year sentences.
Zahnd has strongly denied any wrongdoing and filed a 25-page response to the complaint. In his response, he insists that he acted legally and ethically. He says his publication of the letter writers’ names in a press release was truthful, a matter of public record and protected by the First Amendment.
Reached by The Landmark this week, Zahnd again said there is no merit to the charges.
“People expect and deserve prosecutors who tell the truth. Nearly two years ago, my assistants and I told the truth to supporters of a man who had confessed to sexually abusing a girl for a decade. After that man was sentenced to 50 years in prison, we told the truth about what happened in court,” the prosecutor said this week.
“I am confident that everything we did to hold a clinically-diagnosed pedophile accountable and support the child he molested was entirely ethical,” Zahnd added.
Zahnd has retained Edwin H. Smith to represent him in the disciplinary proceedings. Smith, of St. Joseph, is a former circuit judge and former appellate judge, now with the Polsinelli law firm.
Reached by phone Monday afternoon, Smith told The Landmark: “We strongly deny any of the allegations and believe that after a fair and impartial hearing in front of the disciplinary hearing panel, they’ll find that there has not been any unethical conduct by Mr. Zahnd. He was simply doing his job as required by the law and he represented the people of the state of Missouri and the victim in this case in a manner in which he should have.”
Zahnd has said in seeking to persuade the letter writers to withdraw their letters, he was only trying to spare them from public shame and embarrassment.
Zahnd has been prosecutor for Platte County since first being elected in 2002.
Recently, Zahnd has been touted as a leading candidate to become the next U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, the chief federal prosecutor in the western part of the state. The appointment of U.S. Attorneys is made by the president of the United States, with a recommendation by the senior U.S. Senator from the state, which in this case is Roy Blunt.
Zahnd has been a longtime active public supporter of Blunt.
Zahnd this week declined to comment on any speculation surrounding the U.S. Attorney position, and declined comment when asked by The Landmark if he had been approached about the job.
Observers of the process have publicly noted the ethical complaint against Zahnd likely clouds his candidacy for the position of U.S. Attorney.