Platte County prosecutor subject of ethics complaints

The disclosure struck me as odd at the time.

A press release from Platte County prosecutor Eric Zahnd on the sentencing of Darren Paden, a Dearborn, Mo. man who previously pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a girl, included the names of community members who wrote letters of support. I hadn’t seen one like it when it came to us in late 2015, and I haven’t seen one like it since.

The names released have led to some legal and political drama involving Zahnd and his office with claims of ethical violations involving the bullying and intimidation of witnesses.

Last week, KCUR — a public radio station in Kansas City — published online an investigative report exhaustively detailing the accusations. Zahnd denied any wrongdoing in brief statements used in the lengthy article but declined to provide many details due to ongoing litigation.

I won’t run through all the details. You can search KCUR and read the work done, but I will try to take a look at the circumstances in this case.

I went back to verify that I chose not to run the names when we worked up our story on the sentencing, two consecutive 25-year terms — essentially a death sentence for Paden, then 52. We did include vague details about some of the jobs of the people involved.

“It breaks my heart to see pillars of this community — a former county official, a bank president, church leaders, a school board member, current and former school employees — appear to choose the side of a child molester over the child he repeatedly abused,” Zahnd was quoted as saying in the press release.

Other publications were cited as printing the names before the story went on to show that some of the people who wrote letters faced criticism from the public.

This is where the situation gets sticky for me. The letters were written after Paden made the guilty plea. All of the names were of public record through a simple public records search. 

Zahnd’s justification seems to be that publicly supporting an admitted a child molester leads to tough questions. According to KCUR, this included asking the letter writers to contact the prosecutor’s office, and when they did, they were allegedly told they would be exposed as supporters of a defendant who admitted to sex crimes.

The letter writers also received subpoenas to appear in court.

But Paden since petitioned the court to withdraw his guilty plea, a request ultimately denied. He has now started an appeal process, lending credence for some that the defendant felt pressured into pleading guilty.

John P. O’Connor, the defense attorney for Paden, reported the perceived ethical violations of Zahnd and Platte County assistant prosecuting attorney Chris Seufert to the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel. Legal experts KCUR contacted and quoted said the actions range from reason to disbar Zahnd to simply concerning in how potential witnesses might fear bringing forth relevant information for fear of the prosecutor’s office trying to retaliate against them.

Now comes the political portion of the controversy.

Some consider Zahnd a prime candidate for the currently vacant prosecutor position in the U.S. Western District of Missouri federal court. The KCUR article puts him squarely in the public eye for many of the wrong reasons.

Zahnd first earned the position of Platte County prosecutor in 2002 and since has been re-elected while increasing his stature in the political world. In addition to the ethics complaints, O’Connor represents numerous defendants in Platte County and has since asked to have Zahnd disqualified as prosecutor in some cases, including the potential capital murder trial of Grayden Denham.

O’Connor worries that Zahnd could not treat him fairly due to the ongoing litigation, although the court denied O’Connor’s request in Denham’s quadruple homicide case.

The bar complaints made remain confidential and will stay that way unless the Missouri Supreme Court takes up the matter, according to KCUR. The decision to publish the names, which were already readily available to the public, still perplexes me.

I’m not enough of an expert to decide whether the action borders on criminal. We will probably only find out if the Missouri Supreme Court becomes involved, and if that’s the case, Zahnd’s career in public office will be under much more scrutiny that brought about by one investigative article.

Ross Martin is publisher of The Citizen. He may be reached via email at Follow him on Twitter: @Citizen_Ross.