This story was updated 8:58 a.m. Wednesday to include Eric Zahnd's reaction to the Supreme Court order.
The Missouri Supreme Court has issued a public reprimand of Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd after finding that he violated three ethical rules governing attorney conduct.
The terse, one-page order did not lay out the court’s reasoning. Instead, it merely listed the rules Zahnd was found to have violated and stated that he should be disciplined.
A reprimand is the least-harsh disciplinary measure the court could have imposed. It follows the recommendation of a disciplinary panel that found Zahnd guilty of professional misconduct.
The panel, two attorneys and a lay person, acted on a complaint brought in August by Missouri’s Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel (OCDC), the agency responsible for overseeing attorney conduct in the state.
The complaint alleged 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.
The OCDC recommended harsher punishment, namely a three-month suspension of Zahnd’s law license. Although the disciplinary panel opted to recommend the more lenient punishment, the Supreme Court’s adoption of its recommendation represents a rare rebuke of a sitting prosecuting attorney.
Reacting to the court's order, Zahnd was unapologetic and said he was considering taking the matter up with the U.S. Supreme Court.
"I have great respect for the Missouri Supreme Court, but I do not believe I violated the rules as found in its order," he said in a statement. "While I appreciate that the Court flatly rejected the recommendation of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel to suspend my law license, I am evaluating my options to seek further review of the Court’s decision, including review by the United States Supreme Court."
Zahnd insisted the case was about an elected prosecutor's right to speak truthfully about cases in the courts.
"Unfortunately, the Court’s order does not address my contention that my work to stand up for a victim was protected by the First Amendment and the rules themselves," he said, adding that he never threatened anyone.
The Missouri Press Association weighed in on Zahnd's behalf, contending in a friend-of-the-court brief that Zahnd's actions were protected by the First Amendment. Legal ethics lawyers, however, disputed that view.
"That was incredibly disappointing," said Sean O'Brien, a former chief public defender in Kansas City who now teaches at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, referring to the Missouri Press Association's stance. "That's the equivalent of saying of someone handing someone a bad check and saying, 'Pay me.'"
Three rules violated
The Supreme Court found that Zahnd violated the following rules governing lawyers’ conduct:
- Rule 4-4.4(a), which prohibits a lawyer from using means “that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass” a third person;
- Rule 4-8.4(a), which makes it professional misconduct to violate the rules of professional conduct or to knowingly assist or induce others to do so; and
- Rule 4-8.4(d), which prohibits a lawyer from engaging in “conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”
O'Brien said that Zahnd had clearly crossed ethical lines.
"A prosecuting attorney violates ethical guidelines by threatening witnesses, and it doesn't matter whether he followed through with the threat or not," O'Brien said.
"What surprises me," he added, "is that it's merely a reprimand."
The reprimand, while now part of Zahnd’s public record, will not prevent him from continuing to practice law or keeping his position as the Platte County Prosecutor.
He was first elected in 2002, has since been re-elected three times, and is running for reelection again this year. Missouri Rep. Nick Marshall of Parkville is challenging him in the Republican primary.
The Supreme Court’s findings end a disciplinary proceeding that began two ago, when a Kansas City criminal defense lawyer, John P. O’Connor, lodged an ethics complaint with the OCDC against Zahnd. O’Connor represented Darren Paden, a Dearborn, Missouri, resident accused of molesting his step-daughter over 10 years. Paden pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
Before he was sentenced, 16 people, many at the urging of Paden’s father, wrote letters to the judge describing Paden’s contributions to the community and urging leniency. Incensed at what he thought was their support of the perpetrator over the victim, Zahnd subpoenaed the letter writers and ordered them to appear at his office.
There they were told that unless they withdrew their letters, Zahnd’s office would send out a press release listing their names and occupations and stating they supported a child molester. When they failed to comply, Zahnd made good on his threat and issued the press release.
O’Connor consulted with a legal ethics expert before filing his complaint against Zahnd. Zahnd, in turn, filed an ethics complaint against O’Connor. The OCDC recently found in O’Connor’s favor on Zahnd’s complaint.
O’Connor on Tuesday declined to comment on the Supreme Court’s order.
After O’Connor filed his ethics complaint, Zahnd’s office refused to communicate with him except in writing or in court. O’Connor, who represented other clients in Platte County, moved to have Zahnd’s office recused from those cases, but two different judges, including Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrence, turned down his request.
Torrence, however, found that Zahnd had engaged in “the rankest form of bullying and intimidation in the Paden case,” calling his conduct “outrageous, indefensible, and clearly unethical.”
At a public hearing before the disciplinary panel, Zahnd claimed his intent was not to publicly shame the letter writers but 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.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the OCDC found that Zahnd had violated Rule 4-8.4(a). In fact, only the Supreme Court found that he had violated that rule.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.