This story was updated at 5:14 to include Eric Zahnd's reaction to the decision.
A disciplinary panel has found Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd guilty of professional misconduct and recommended that he be publicly reprimanded.
The matter now goes to the Missouri Supreme Court, which will decide whether to accept or reject the panel's findings and recommendation.
The three-person panel – two lawyers and a layperson – issued its decision after listening in November to two days of testimony, including from Zahnd himself.
The panel acted on a complaint brought in August by Missouri’s Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel (OCDC), the agency responsible for overseeing attorney conduct. The OCDC complaint found that Zahnd had 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 in October 2015.
“While the lawful power of the Office of the Prosecuting Attorney is rightly directed at criminal suspects and defendants, the threat of retribution should not be wielded against ordinary members of the public not subject to potential criminal charges.,” the panel stated in its 24-page decision.
“The threat of a public shaming of a non-suspect, non-criminal citizen should not be a tool of the Prosecutor’s Office, used to force citizens to obey its will. This type of conduct diminishes the public's faith in our governmental institutions, and is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”
An attorney for the OCDC, Nancy Ripperger, had urged the panel to suspend Zahnd’s law license for at least six months. While falling short of that, the panel’s recommendation to issue a public reprimand of Zahnd nonetheless is a rare rebuke of a sitting prosecuting attorney.
A public reprimand is issued only after a finding of misconduct, although it does not limit Zahnd's right to continue practicing law. If adopted by the Missouri Supreme Court, it would become a matter of public record.
Zahnd has been the Platte County Prosecutor for more than 15 years and has been re-elected three times.
In an email to KCUR, Zahnd said that he disagreed with the panel's recommendation "because I believe the ethical rules and the First Amendment protect elected officials who tell the truth to the public about what happens in open court."
Zahnd said he was reviewing the decision and will determine his next steps in coming days.
The issue of Zahnd’s conduct arose in a highly charged child molestation case that Zahnd’s office prosecuted. The defendant – Dearborn, Missouri, resident Darren Paden – pleaded guilty to two counts of statutory sodomy after admitting that he molested his daughter over a period of about a decade beginning when she was about 5 years old.
Before Paden was sentenced, 16 community residents – many of them at the urging of Paden’s father – wrote letters to the judge describing the Paden’s contributions to the community and urging leniency. The judge apparently paid them little heed and sentenced Paden to 50 years in prison.
But before the sentencing, Zahnd’s office subpoenaed the letter writers, including the longtime president of the local bank and the owner of a local gas utility, commanding them to contact an assistant prosecutor in the office, Chris Seufert.
Seufert told the them that unless they withdrew their letters on behalf of Paden, the prosecutor’s office would sent out a press release listing their names and occupations and indicating they supported a child molester.
None of the writers withdrew their letters and, making good on the threat, Zahnd issued a press release after Paden was sentenced that publicly shamed all but three of the letter writers. (Those three had also written letters to Paden’s victim after they met with Seufert.)
In his testimony, Zahnd denied that his intent was to shame them. Rather, he testified, the press release was meant to provide transparency in a high-profile case; apprise the public that prominent members of the community would not be given special treatment; create a deterrent for other would-be child molesters; and provide an incentive for other sex crime victims to come forward.
The disciplinary panel found those rationales unpersuasive. It said the same objectives could have been achieved without listing the names of the letter writers or indicating, as the release stated, that they appeared to “choose the side of a child molester over the child he repeatedly abused.”
The panel found that Zahnd violated several rules of professional conduct, including one that prohibits lawyers from using means “that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person.” It also found that he had violated a rule that makes it professional misconduct for a lawyer to prejudice the administration of justice.
The panel, however, noted that there was no evidence that Zahnd’s office had engaged in a pattern of intimidation or witness shaming. It said that, by all accounts, the office was well run, took its prosecution responsibilities seriously and had been recognized statewide for its office practices.
It also absolved him of misconduct for posting a statement on the prosecutor’s Facebook page the day before Paden was scheduled to be sentenced. The statement noted: “Over 15 people have submitted letters to the Court in support of this child molester, including a former bank president, a church trustee and multiple current and former teachers.”
Unusual for a lawyer disciplinary matter – and indicative of its high profile –briefs were submitted by four outside parties, including the Missouri Press Association and the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.
Through his own attorney, the lawyer who triggered the complaint process, John P. O’Connor, declined to comment on the panel’s findings. O’Connor, who represented Paden, filed an ethics complaint against Zahnd several months after learning of his office’s attempt to get the letter writers to withdraw their letters. Zahnd has since filed an ethics complaint against O’Connor, a veteran criminal defense lawyer, but no action has been taken on that complaint so far.
O’Connor has moved to bar Zahnd’s office from handling other criminal matters in which O’Connor represents defendants. Earlier this year, a judge denied that motion but the motion has since been reassigned to another judge.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor for KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.