Ethics panel finds Platte County prosecutor guilty of misconduct, recommends discipline

Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd said Tuesday that he had not decided how he will respond to a disciplinary panel’s recommendation that he face public reprimand after finding him guilty of professional misconduct.

Zahnd and his office were accused of intimidating and threatening supporters of a Dearborn man after he pleaded guilty in 2015 to repeatedly sexually abusing a child for at least a decade.

A disciplinary hearing panel for the Missouri Supreme Court on Dec. 6 found Zahnd guilty misconduct and recommended a public reprimand. The matter now goes before the Supreme Court, which will decide whether Zahnd broken any rules; what discipline, if any, to impose against Zahnd, or to simply dismiss the case.

Defense attorney John P. O’Connor filed ethics complaints against Zahnd and Assistant Prosecutor Christopher Seufert last year, saying they tried to intimidate several people who wrote letters seeking leniency for Daden L. Paden before he was sentenced for abusing the girl at least 200 to 300 times over a decade, starting before she turned 5 years old. Despite the letters, Paden was sentenced in October 2015 to 50 years in prison.

O’Connor’s complaints were filed in August with the Missouri Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. The disciplinary hearing was held in November before a three-member panel.

In its ruling, the panel concluded that the incident, “appears to have been an isolated case with fairly unique circumstances. The manner in which the letter-writers were handled in this case was different from other cases handled by the (prosecutor) — from subpoenaing them to testify at the sentencing, to meeting with them individually to discuss the specifics of the defendant’s confession.

“Although it was in the context of an isolated and unique circumstance, the conduct described herein above was nevertheless intentional,” according the 24-page opinion.

Throughout the process, Zahnd maintained that he and his office did nothing improper.

“I respectfully disagree with that conclusion 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 in an email statement. “I am reviewing that part of the decision and the Panel’s recommendation of a reprimand — the lowest possible discipline.

“The public expects and deserves prosecutors who tell the truth,” he said. “The Panel agreed that my office and I told the truth but found that, under the ethical rules, a prosecutor who informs the general public about a criminal case is not always permitted to make a statement merely because it is true.”

Christian County Prosecutor Amy Fite, who is president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the panel’s ruling might have implications beyond the Platte County matter.

“The decision in this case raises serious concerns for us about the ability of Missouri’s prosecutors to tell the truth to the public about what happens in court,” Fite said in an email statement. “We will continue to argue for the protection of basic Constitutional rights of crime victims and prosecutors alike. If this is the standard by which prosecutors’ actions will be measured when it comes to standing up for crime victims, then it may be time to look at updating the disciplinary rules to ensure that they match the modern-day expectations of the public and crime victims.”

Paden’s relatives, church members and friends of his highly respected parents wrote the letters to the court. They described Paden, a former chief of the volunteer fire department and a father of seven, as a good man who was well liked throughout the small Platte County farm community.

In court documents, O’Connor accused Zahnd and Seufert of threatening to publish the supporters’ names in local newspapers as supporters of a pedophile if they did not withdraw their letters of support for Paden.

The panel’s opinion does not affect Zahnd’s ability to practice law but they did warn him not commit similar violations in the future.

The panel concluded, “making good on the threat of the 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.”

Glenn E. Rice: 816-234-4341, @GRicekcstar