Platte County taxpayers are on the hook for at least $70,000 in legal fees incurred by Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd in connection with an ethics complaint filed against him in May 2016.
Invoices obtained by KCUR through Missouri’s open records law show that from July 2016 through February 2018, Zahnd’s private attorneys at the Polsinelli law firm billed the county $70,065 for their legal work on behalf of Zahnd.
As of early May, the county had paid all but nearly $22,000 of the bills, accounts payable records show.
In May, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a public reprimand of Zahnd after finding that he had violated three ethics rules governing attorney conduct.
Afterward, Zahnd, who denied he did anything wrong, said he was considering taking the case up with the U.S. Supreme Court. If he does, he’ll incur additional legal fees that also presumably will be paid by the county.
Asked to comment on the fees and their reimbursement by the county, Zahnd said in an email that it’s “standard practice for counties to defend public officials against these sorts of claims.”
“It’s a sad fact of life that criminal defense lawyers will on occasion attack prosecutors for doing their jobs,” Zahnd said. “The mother of the victim in this case said my actions saved her daughter’s life. I did what I thought was right to stand up for the victim of horrific child sexual assault by repeating truthful, public information about a court case once that case was over. I never imagined anyone would say it was unethical to tell the truth.”
Zahnd said he’s still weighing whether to seek review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Even though the Missouri Supreme Court flatly rejected the recommendation of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel and merely issued a reprimand – which has no impact on my ability to practice law or perform my duties as a prosecutor – this is an important issue regarding the public’s right to know and protecting victims,” Zahnd said.
The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, the agency that recommends whether Missouri lawyers should be disciplined, had recommended that the Missouri Supreme Court mete out a more severe punishment – namely a three-month suspension of Zahnd’s law license. The court instead opted for the least-harsh disciplinary measure it could have imposed.
It’s not always the case that prosecutors charged with misconduct get reimbursed for their legal fees. For example, the Center for Public Integrity, in a 2003 investigation of disciplinary proceedings against prosecutors nationwide, found that in 24 of 44 cases the prosecutors had to pay all or part of the cost of their hearings.
Platte County Presiding Commissioner Ron Schieber defended the county’s payment of Zahnd’s attorney fees, saying that county officials get sued all the time and the county routinely picks up the tab.
“Keep in mind, they did file the ethics complaint in his capacity as prosecutor and, right or wrong, prosecutors do have the ability to defend their office and themselves from this type of complaint,” Schieber said.
“I’m not defending whether Eric is right or wrong in this,” he added, “but defense attorneys use these types of tactics now and you wouldn’t get anyone to serve as prosecutors if they had to cover their own personal ethics bills.”
It’s actually rare for an elected prosecuting attorney like Zahnd to be accused of ethics violations. Zahnd himself has noted that in his 16 years as Platte County’s elected prosecuting attorney, he had never previously been accused of misconduct.
In this case, the proceedings were triggered by a complaint filed by John P. O’Connor, a veteran criminal defense attorney. He alleged that Zahnd had intimidated witnesses in an emotionally charged case that divided the town of Dearborn, Missouri.
O’Connor represented Dearborn resident Darren Paden, who pleaded guilty to molesting his step-daughter over a period of 10 years. After Paden entered his plea, more than a dozen townspeople wrote letters to the judge seeking leniency on his behalf. Zahnd threatened to publicly shame them – a threat he ultimately made good on – if they didn’t withdraw their letters. The judge ended up sentencing Paden to 50 years in prison. Under his plea agreement, he could have received 60.
To defend himself, Zahnd retained attorneys at Polsinelli, one of Kansas City’s biggest and most prominent law firms. His Polsinelli lawyers included Edwin H. Smith, a former county and appeals court judge who billed Zahnd at the rate of $440 an hour. Other Polsinelli lawyers who worked on Zahnd’s case billed at rates of $350 an hour and above.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Darren Paden's 50-year prison sentence was the maximum punishment he could have received. Under his plea agreement, he could have received 60 years.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies