The Missouri Supreme Court issued a reprimand for Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd after the state’s high court found that Zahnd violated three rules of professional conduct after issuing a press release following the sentencing hearing of Darren Paden who pleaded guilty to molesting a female relative in October of 2015.
A reprimand is the lowest possible discipline issued by the court which can include a reprimand with requirements, suspension or disbarment.
The Office of the Chief Disciplinary Counsel sought a six month suspension of Zahnd’s law license while a three-person panel recommended a reprimand after hearing testimony in the case in November of 2017.
Zahnd rejected the decision by the disciplinary panel —which consisted of two lawyers and a non-lawyer — in January therefore sending the case to the Supreme Court.
The high court heard the case earlier this month and after the oral arguments instituted the reprimand last week.
The court found Zahnd violated rule 4-4.4a “In representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third person or use methods of obtaining evidence that violate the legal rights of such a person,” 4-8.4a and 4-8.4d “It is professional misconduct for a lawyer to: (a) violate or attempt to violate the Rules of Professional Conduct, knowingly assist or induce another to do so, or do so through the acts of another; (d) engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”
“I have great respect for the Missouri Supreme Court, but I do not believe I violated the rules as found in its order,” Zahnd 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.”
John O’Connor, Paden’s defense attorney, filed the ethics complaint against Zahnd in April of 2017.
The complaint stems from a press release following Paden’s sentencing hearing. Zahnd named the citizens who wrote letters and provided their current or former employer’s names.
“It is said that we can be judged by how we treat the least of those among us,” Zahnd said in the release. “It breaks my heart to see pillars of this community — a former county official, a bank president, . . . appear to choose the side of a child molester over the child he repeatedly abused.”
Zahnd was only accused of violating the rules of professional conduct in regards to two of the letters received by the court, those of Jerry Hagg and Donna and Karlton Nash.
“The press release was false,” Chief Disciplinary Counsel Alan Pratzel said during oral arguments. “If you look at the letters sent in by Mr. Hagg and the Nashes, they do not state a disbelief in the victim. They do not question that Paden committed the crime. They do not state any support for pedophilia or child molestation. Mr. Hagg does not mention that he was a former president of Platte Valley Bank or imply he was writing as a representative of Platte Valley Bank. Ms. Nash doesn’t reference that fact she was a former county collector and Mr. Nash does not reference that he owns Nash Gas, a local business. They are benign in content. However, to then issue the press release in which he basically says they are supporting a child molester over the victim that he repeatedly abused is a false statement given the benign nature of the letters and secondly is simply issued to embarrass the letter writers. It is the sinister mischaracterization that these benign letters into a support of pedophilia and child molestation that in my view violated the rules and held the letter writers up to ridicule by the public — and they were ridiculed. It’s not that he references the letters it’s that it’s a false representation of the substance of those letters. The panel found that it was intentional, he did this for the purpose of embarrassing them and to hold them up to public ridicule.”
The Supreme Court simply issued an order of reprimand and did not issue an opinion to explain the rationale for their findings.