A lawyer for the Missouri agency that oversees lawyer conduct urged a disciplinary panel to suspend the law license of Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd for at least six months.
The recommendation by Nancy L. Ripperger, an attorney with the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel (OCDC), came at the end of two days of often combative testimony before the panel, which will recommend whether and to what extent to punish Zahnd.
In August, the OCDC concluded that Zahnd, who has been the Platte County prosecutor for 15 years, committed multiple ethical violations when he sought to pressure community members to withdraw letters they had written in support of a convicted child molester prior to his sentencing.
Zahnd, testifying on his own behalf before the three-person panel, forcefully defended his actions, saying he was only trying to spare the letter writers public embarrassment and to protect the victim.
“These allegations are very troubling to me,” he told the panel on Tuesday. “I take both personal and professional ethics by far as my most important priority.”
“We wouldn’t have done anything if we even thought we were close to an ethical line,” Zahnd added, “and I don’t think were even close to an ethical line.”
Rare disciplinary case
It’s rare for a sitting prosecuting attorney to be accused of ethical lapses, especially popularly elected ones like Zahnd, who has been re-elected three times since first winning the Platte County prosecutor job in 2002.
The disciplinary panel, consisting of two lawyers and one non-lawyer, is expected to decide within a few weeks what, if any, punishment to recommend. The case would then go up to the Missouri Supreme Court, which has the final say on attorney discipline.
Zahnd has been viewed as a leading contender to become the next U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, the top federal prosecutor in this part of the state. The disciplinary proceedings have cast a shadow over his prospects, but, pending a decision in the case, sources said he remains in the running for the post.
The ethics case was triggered by Zahnd’s conduct in a highly charged and widely publicized case that deeply divided the tiny community of Dearborn, Missouri.
In August 2015, the defendant in the case, Dearborn resident Darren Paden, pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree felony sodomy after confessing he molested his adopted daughter for years, beginning when she was about 5 years old.
Before his sentencing, the court received 16 letters from friends and family members of Paden’s citing his church and community activities and urging leniency. Zahnd then sought to pressure the letter writers to withdraw their letters by threatening to name them in a press release, according to the OCDC complaint.
One of the issues before the disciplinary panel is whether Zahnd violated a rule of professional conduct prohibiting lawyers from asking witnesses not to provide relevant information to another party. Paden’s attorney, John P. O’Connor, was sufficiently disturbed by Zahnd’s actions that he sought the advice of a former attorney with the OCDC, Sara Rittman, who is now in private practice in Jefferson City.
Rittman told O’Connor that the Rules of Professional Conduct, which govern attorney behavior, required him to file an ethics complaint against Zahnd, which O’Connor eventually did. After O’Connor filed his complaint, Zahnd instructed assistant prosecutors in his office to limit communications with O’Connor to taped or on-the-record proceedings in court.
O’Connor has since moved to disqualify Zahnd’s office in several cases in which O'Connor represents defendants in Platte County, saying he can’t effectively represent them under those conditions.
A judge denied O’Connor’s motion, but another judge is now reconsidering the motion.
In the meantime, Zahnd filed his own ethics complaint against O’Connor. The OCDC has yet to make findings in that case.
Letter writers subpoenaed
The OCDC’s complaint against Zahnd focused on three of the letter writers in the Paden case and Zahnd’s interactions with them.
One of the letter writers, Jerry Hagg, was a former president of the local bank. Another, Donna Nash, was the former Platte County collector. A third, Karlton Nash, Donna Nash’s husband, owned a local propane supply company.
Just before Paden’s scheduled sentencing, Zahnd instructed his assistant prosecutors to meet with them and try to get them to withdraw their letters, according to the OCDC’s complaint. Zahnd’s office subsequently subpoenaed some of the letter writers, including Hagg, who was told to appear at the Platte County courthouse on the sentencing date and call Zahnd’s office before the hearing.
When Hagg showed up at the office, an assistant prosecutor, Chris Seufert, told him that if he didn’t withdraw his character letter, he would be named in a press release that said he supported a child molester. Zahnd told the Nashes much the same thing in a phone call the evening before the scheduled sentencing.
After O’Connor got wind of what happened and informed the court, Paden’s sentencing was postponed. A few weeks later, Zahnd’s office agreed to release the letter writers from their subpoenas if Paden would agree to move up the sentencing date. O’Connor agreed.
After Paden was sentenced, Zahnd sent out a press release he’d written. The release named the letter writers and their places of employment. In it, Zahnd stated: “It is said that we can be judged by how we treat the least of those among us. It breaks my heart to see pillars of this community – a former county official, a bank president, … appear to choose the side of a child molester over the child he repeatedly abused.”
In his testimony before the disciplinary panel Tuesday, Zahnd repeatedly said that he believed the letter writers had based their letters on lies spread by Paden and that he merely wanted to present them with the facts of the case.
Zahnd said the purpose of the press release was not to shame those he named but rather to provide transparency about the workings of the court, to deter criminal conduct and to encourage other victims to come forward.
“These are all substantial purposes,” he said, adding that “every word” in the release was already a matter of public record.
As it happened, the court appeared to pay little heed to the letter writers’ pleas. On Oct. 30, 2015, it sentenced Paden, who was then 52 years old, to 50 years in prison.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.