Special prosecutor says hours, money spent on job justified

CHIP ELLIS | Gazette file photo
The pending domestic violence charges against Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants have led to the appointmentt of a special prosecutor to handle similar cases in Kanawha County — and questions over the costs of that special prosecutor.

Special prosecutor Don Morris has asked a judge not to cut back his hours, and says the amount he’s being paid to handle domestic violence cases in Kanawha County is reasonable.

Morris also wants Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom to stop the office of Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants from making public statements about him and for sanctions to be imposed after county prosecutors accused Morris of submitting a “grossly excessive bill.”

Also Monday, Kanawha County commissioners received their first bill from Sid Bell, the other special prosecutor they’re paying — this one to prosecute Plants on his criminal charges. Plants is charged with domestic battery of his 11-year-old son and violating a domestic violence protective order.

Bell, who is prosecuting Plants in Kanawha County Magistrate Court, billed the county about $4,500 for a little more than 35 hours’ worth of work. Bell, a longtime McDowell County prosecuting attorney, is being paid an hourly rate of $125. His invoice also includes $62 in mileage reimbursement.

Last week, Plants chief of staff Dan Holstein asked a circuit judge to cut Morris’ hours and appoint an assistant prosecutor from Plants’ office to handle felony domestic violence cases. That move wouldn’t require additional pay, as an assistant would maintain his or her current salary.

Commissioners are paying Morris $200 an hour after Bloom appointed him to serve as chief special prosecutor handling cases involving child abuse and neglect, violent crimes against children by parents or guardians and criminal violations of protective orders. The judge also told three assistant prosecutors in Plants’ office to help Morris and no longer report to Plants.

Bloom will address Holstein’s motion in a hearing Thursday.

Morris says in his response filed Monday that Holstein’s request is “an attempt to shift responsibility of the cost of the Special Prosecutor’s services from Mr. Plants onto this Court.”

Plants’ office has “offered a faux solution, in the wrong forum, to champion a meritless ‘cost saving’ plan when he is wholly conflicted from involvement,” Morris wrote. Plants “did this so that if his motion is denied he can claim he tried to fix the problem he created.”

After the state Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which oversees attorneys in West Virginia, filed a petition asking the state Supreme Court to suspend Plants’ law license because his defense that he hasn’t committed a crime creates a conflict of interest with him being prosecutor. The city of Charleston also filed a petition asking Plants’ office be removed from handling some cases involving domestic violence. Bloom appointed Morris because of that petition.

Last week, the Supreme Court denied the ODC’s petition to immediately suspend Plants’ law license until it completes an investigation. Justices wrote, however, that Bloom’s order should remain in “full force.”

Kanawha County Commissioner Dave Hardy asked Plants last week to resign from office, citing the cost of Morris’ salary. Commissioners plan to discuss Morris’ salary at meeting Tuesday.

In a letter, Commission President Kent Carper invited Holstein to attend the meeting, but Holstein wrote back Friday saying he wouldn’t attend.

Morris said in Monday’s filing that if Holstein has a problem with his salary, Holstein should take it up with commissioners, not with Bloom. Morris retired as an assistant prosecutor last year after 27 years in the office.

Morris said he’s charging the same as or less than other publicly compensated lawyers. A review of recent Supreme Court opinions shows Morris is billing at a lower rate than other public lawyers with less experience, according to his response.

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

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