Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd is certain he did nothing wrong.
In fact, he’s convinced — “firmly,” to use his word — that he’s clean as a whistle when it comes to a witness intimidation accusation.
But a Missouri agency responsible for investigating allegations of lawyer wrongdoing sees it otherwise and has recommended that the longtime prosecutor be disciplined for professional misconduct.
All this might not be so significant if it wasn’t for this: Zahnd went into 2017 as the heavy favorite to become the next U.S. attorney for western Missouri. That means he’d be this area’s top law enforcement officer dealing with drugs and human trafficking as well as public corruption in the state Capitol.
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Zahnd has more insider GOP connections than the phone book and was an early supporter of Gov. Eric Greitens. Now, though, his prospects may be dimming following a rare finding by the Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel. That finding alleged that Zahnd had threatened witnesses who stepped forward to vouch for a man later sentenced to half-a-century in prison. His crime was abusing a girl hundreds of times over a decade. The abuse allegedly started when the girl was 4.
“Rare” is a key word here. It’s not often that sitting prosecutors are rung up on ethical charges. Zahnd has been prosecuting cases in Platte County since 2002.
The case of Darren Paden, the now-convicted child molester, tore up tiny Dearborn, Mo., where Paden once was chief of the volunteer fire department and a junior deacon at church. His parents reportedly were respected residents.
Sixteen friends and neighbors wrote letters to the judge seeking leniency for Paden’s sentence. The writers cited Paden’s work on behalf of neighbors, his church and town.
Letters like this aren’t unusual in criminal cases and typically aren’t aimed at proving guilt or innocence, but they could factor into the amount of time a convicted person serves.
Zahnd’s office didn’t treat these letters as standard fare, though. Employees allegedly contacted the writers and told them to withdraw them. If they refused, they would be cross-examined at the sentencing hearing.
Zahnd’s office did something else: It subpoenaed some of the writers. In one case, an assistant prosecutor told a writer that if he didn’t withdraw his letter, he would be named in a press release as a child molestation supporter. The office put out a news release and posted a newspaper story about it on the prosecutor’s Facebook page.
KCUR’s Dan Margolies, who’s reported extensively on this story, noted that some attorneys viewed these actions as way, way out of line. Sean O’Brien, a former chief public defender in Kansas City, called it “one of the most egregious breaches of ethics” he had ever seen.
The optics, even to a layman like me, are horrible.
Legal rules bar Zahnd from talking about it. But he did say that he had no problem compelling the letter writers to go public because that’s how the legal system is supposed to work.
“Our country has always believed in open court proceedings and the right to confront witnesses — even if that makes some witnesses uneasy,” he wrote.
The case is headed to a disciplinary hearing panel. The state Supreme Court can review the panel’s findings and impose punishment, which could include disbarment.
In the meantime, if President Donald Trump names someone else as U.S. attorney, you’ll know why it wasn’t Zahnd.