If, as an elected official, you get caught violating rules of professional conduct, taxpayers should not get stuck with the bill to defend your misdeeds.
Yet Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd has racked up more than $70,000 in legal bills related to his own professional misconduct that taxpayers will have to cover. And the tab could continue to grow.
Zahnd was understandably outraged a few years ago when people in the small community of Dearborn, Mo., rallied to defend a confessed child molester.
In 2015, Darren L. Paden admitted that he’d sexually assaulted a girl for 10 years, starting before she began elementary school.
Shockingly, self-described churchgoing people, relatives of Paden and friends of his family, demanded leniency for this pedophile. They wrote letters on his behalf, asking for Paden to be sentenced to fewer years in prison.
It didn’t work. Paden received a 50-year sentence.
Zahnd erred, though, when he tried to shame the letter writers by listing their names in a news release, along with their positions in the community (school board member, bank official, former teacher).
Paden’s defense attorney filed a complaint against Zahnd. He denied any wrongdoing, but a panel of the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel recommended that Zahnd’s law license be suspended and found him guilty of violating rules of professional conduct.
Later, the Missouri Supreme Court decided that a public reprimand would be enough.
Regardless of the specifics of Zahnd’s punishment, taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for the team of private attorneys who defended what he did.
Zahnd’s comments at the time showed a level of contrition: “Had I believed for one moment that my conduct in standing up for the victim of child sex abuse could possibly be interpreted as violating the rules, I would have done things differently.”
But Zahnd is still weighing whether he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state decision. He believes there is a need to defend a prosecutor’s right to discuss broader aspects of cases that come before the court. His appeal would mean more legal bills for taxpayers.
Zahnd stood for the victim when he successfully prosecuted the case. There was no need to overreach and intimidate the people who were unwilling to believe that the volunteer firefighter and father they’d long known could also abuse a child.
Paden is jailed. His victim is safe. Zahnd should take solace in that and let the rest of it go.
We’ll let Zahnd have the last say here, via a statement he made in October of 2015: “If it takes a village to raise a child, what is a child to do when the village turns its back and supports a confessed child molester?”
Unfortunately, there are many other pedophiles in society and plenty of gullible people who will believe their lies. That’s why good prosecutors who play by the rules are so valuable.