A recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court involving the Platte County Prosecuting Attorney came up at the meeting of the Platte County Commission this week.
During a routine discussion of budget amendments at the Monday, Oct. 15 administrative session, a transfer involving the prosecutor’s budget was noted by auditor Kevin Robinson. A $27,500 transfer was made from the general reserve fund to the general fund to help the prosecutor’s office pay for legal fees incurred during defense against an ethics complaint filed against the office in 2017.
Second district commissioner John Elliott spoke up on the subject, saying, “It’s a shame the prosecutor has had to deal with this just because he was doing his job.”
Eric Zahnd, county prosecutor, agreed with Elliott’s statement and explained the rationale for the public nature of the transfer. He said due to the high-profile status of the case, the budget transfer was done as part of a formal budget amendment hearing instead of through a more typical interdepartmental procedure.
The case in question started with the 2015 sentencing of a Dearborn child molester, Darren Paden. Zahnd issued a press release regarding the sentencing of Paden, who pleaded guilty earlier that year to repeatedly molesting a female relative. In that release, Zahnd named Dearborn community members who had written letters supporting Paden prior to his sentencing. Paden’s defense attorney, John O’Connor, filed an ethics complaint against Zahnd in early 2017 for naming these community members in the release.
After a disciplinary hearing held in late 2017, a three-person panel consisting of two lawyers and a non-lawyer recommended a reprimand. In May, the Missouri Supreme Court issued a public reprimand — the lowest disciplinary order. In August, Zahnd asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case, allowing the Missouri Supreme Court decision to stand.
“It’s a sad fact that in today’s world criminal defense attorneys will on occasion attack prosecutors simply for doing their jobs,” Zahnd said. He said it was a phenomenon across the country and part of an organized effort by criminal defense attorneys to discredit prosecutors.
Zahnd reiterated at the Monday meeting that he released information that was already public, after the final determination of the case. The Missouri Supreme Court’s reprimand included no rationale behind their decision, which Zahnd said makes it difficult to discern why the reprimand was given.
This was why he and other entities — including the Missouri Press Association — sought a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I believe that decision (by the Missouri Supreme Court) raised the (question) of whether an elected prosecutor can tell the truth in a news release about public information regarding a court case once that case is over,” Zahnd said. “I believe that news release was protected by the First Amendment to ensure the transparency of Missouri’s courts and protect child victims.”
Zahnd, who is unopposed for re-election to his post in November, said he would continue to protect victims in whatever way he could.
Presiding commissioner Ron Schieber — also up for re-election — commended Zahnd for his actions, as both an elected official and as the father of five daughters. He told Zahnd to consider the reprimand as a badge of honor that he had protected the victim in the Paden case and given her the chance to live a normal life.
“I am proud to sit here today and support, in my own little way, the ability to help you protect (victims),” Schieber said. “Continue your hard work. Continue to go after these guys. I appreciate your work as a commissioner, but mostly as a father.”
The commissioners approved the budget amendments — including the transfer for the prosecutor — on a 2-0 vote. First district commissioner Dagmar Wood was absent due to a death in her family.
Moving forward, Robinson said the county budget will include a dedicated fund for legal defense of the prosecutor, should events like this occur in the future.