In a rare complaint against an elected prosecutor, the Missouri agency responsible for investigating allegations of lawyer wrongdoing has recommended that Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd be punished for professional misconduct.
The matter now goes before a disciplinary hearing panel – two lawyers and one non-lawyer – which will hear evidence and recommend what discipline, if any, to impose.
The Missouri Supreme Court is authorized to review the panel’s decision and impose punishment ranging from a public reprimand and suspension to disbarment.
It’s highly unusual for a sitting prosecuting attorney to be formally accused of ethical lapses, especially popularly elected ones like Zahnd, who has been Platte County’s chief prosecutor since 2002.
The Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel, the Missouri body that polices attorney conduct, only brings formal charges when it concludes that an attorney has committed serious violations of the rules governing attorney behavior, known as the Rules of Professional Conduct.
Zahnd earlier this year was thought to be a leading candidate to become the next U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri – the chief federal prosecutor in the western half of the state. The findings by the chief disciplinary counsel, Alan D. Pratzel, are likely to cast a large shadow over his candidacy.
Pratzel’s findings center on the conduct of Zahnd’s office in a highly charged criminal case that deeply divided the small town of Dearborn, Missouri. The defendant, Darren L. Paden, pleaded guilty to sexually molesting a young girl over a decade and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.