Disciplinary office: Plants still should be suspended

Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants (center) talks with other lawyers during a hearing i

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The office that oversees attorneys in the state says Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants’ law license should still be suspended despite a recent ruling by a Kanawha judge meant to clear up any potential conflict of interest.

The state Office of Disciplinary Counsel filed a brief late Thursday that expands on its call for the immediate suspension of Plants’ law license.

Plants is charged with domestic battery of his 11-year-old son after police say he left a 6- to 7-inch bruise on his thigh. He is also charged with violating a domestic violence protective order. Both charges are misdemeanors.

The state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which oversees lawyers in the state, filed a petition last month asking the Supreme Court to immediately suspend Plants and/or remove his office from handling cases of domestic violence involving parents and minor children until disciplinary proceedings against him are completed with the state Lawyer Disciplinary Board.

Not long after the ODC’s petition, the city of Charleston filed its own petition asking Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom to remove Plants’ office from cases investigated by Charleston Police.

Bloom subsequently barred Plants’ office from prosecuting cases involving child abuse and neglect, violent crimes against children by their parents and criminal violations of protective orders. The judge appointed former longtime assistant prosecutor Don Morris to handle those cases, along with three assistant prosecutors. Those assistants will report to Morris, not Plants.

Bloom’s “actions were necessary and appropriate given the circumstances … the existence of ‘dual’ offices of the Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office is not a long-term solution in that it does not instill public trust and confidence in the [office] or in our system of justice.”

The Kanawha County Commission is paying Morris $200 an hour.

Plants filed a brief earlier Thursday that said Bloom’s order prevents a conflict of interest. He argues there’s now no need for justices to suspend him.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case Monday.

Attorneys with the ODC argue that Plants’ belief that he has the right to discipline his son within reason and that what he’s charged with isn’t a crime creates a conflict of interest with his being a prosecutor.

“Although [Plants] is certainly free to assert this defense in his criminal proceeding, he may not do so while serving as the Prosecuting Attorney of Kanawha County tasked with prosecuting alleged violations of West Virginia law,” the ODC’s brief states.

And even though Plants doesn’t think what he’s done is a crime, the ODC’s brief points out that he has prosecuted similar cases.

His office “has not hesitated to prosecute individuals charged with conduct remarkably similar to the allegations giving rise to Respondent’s domestic battery charge,” the ODC’s filing states.

Plants has been Kanawha prosecuting attorney since 2008.

The ODC’s filing details a 2009 case of a man charged with striking his young daughter with a belt. Edward M. Skaggs Jr. was charged with felony child abuse causing bodily injury after police said he struck his 9-year-old daughter with a belt on the buttocks and leg, causing severe bruising.

Prosecutors in Plants’ office dismissed the charges at a preliminary hearing in magistrate court. However, a grand jury later indicted Skaggs on one felony count of child abuse causing substantial risk of serious bodily injury and a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery.

In a deal with prosecutors, Skaggs pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor domestic battery charge and the felony charge was dropped. A 90-day jail sentence in 2011 was suspended and Skaggs was placed on probation for a year.

The ODC’s filing also points out a “personal decision” Plants made in 2011 that makes him a “substantial threat of irreparable harm to the public’s perception of the integrity” of the office.

When Plants fired former assistant prosecutor Scott Reynolds after Reynolds was charged with DUI, Plants explained that “a DUI is a very serious crime” and that a “DUI is unacceptable for the general public and they are completely unacceptable for my employees.”

The ODC says Plants’ decision to terminate Reynolds before he was found guilty of a crime makes the office look bad because Plants continues to serve as prosecutor “while facing criminal charges himself.”

Attorneys with the ODC also cite a recent Charleston Gazette article, in which Kim Eagle, a 20-year victims’ advocate for the Charleston Police Department, described how she “has been trying to regain the trust of victims since prosecutor Mark Plants was charged.”

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.

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