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County officials back-and-forth over payment of special prosecutors

Photo by Tom Hindman Mark Plants.

Kanawha County officials are trying to determine how to pay for court-mandated special prosecutors, but the county commissioners and the prosecutor’s office aren’t seeing eye-to-eye.

The county commission voted Tuesday to ask Kanawha Prosecutor Mark Plants’ office to use $50,000 from its $79,000 drug asset forfeiture account to help pay for special prosecutors. If the Prosecutor’s Office refused, the commission would freeze the account.

The special prosecutors are handling cases involving child abuse after a circuit judge barred Plants and his subordinates from handling such cases. Plants faces charges of domestic battery and violating a protective order, both misdemeanors.

Plants agreed Tuesday afternoon and even said he said he would give $75,000 from the drug forfeiture fund, $25,000 from the office’s overall budget and $11,592 from his budgeted pay raise.

Commission President Kent Carper, however, refused to negotiate the payment without being in a public meeting.

“This is a public discussion involving public funds; therefore this will be placed on the June 12th, 2014, Commission meeting,” Carper wrote in a response to Plants’ office late Tuesday. “Again I would respectfully request you or your representative to attend the meeting.” Carper said he wanted to know how Plants planned to reduce his office’s budget by $25,000. He also warned Plants if he did not take his pay increase, he wouldn’t be able to take it for the remainder of his term in office, which ends in 2016.

County commissioners have been trying to find a way to cover the cost of Special Prosecutor Don Morris, who is handling the county’s domestic violence cases, and prosecutor Sid Bell, who is prosecuting Plants on criminal charges.

“It’s a very expensive fix the public should not be paying for,” Commissioner Dave Hardy said Tuesday.

Morris is being paid $200 per hour and Bell is being paid $125 per hour. So far, their services have cost the county about $30,000 and $10,000, respectively.

“It started off as a personal issue but now it became a public issue,” Hardy said. “It remains a public issue because we are going to give $30,000 a month . . . to buy his way out of a conflict.”

In April, Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom appointed Morris, 56, to the special prosecutor position after disqualifying Plants and his staff from handling all crimes of violence by a parent or custodian against a child, abuse and neglect cases and criminal violations of domestic violence protective orders.

In February, Plants was charged with domestic battery against his 11-year-old son. He was later charged with violating the protective order put in place by his ex-wife.

The order was granted after Allison Plants filed a complaint with State Police after finding a large U-shaped bruise on the back of her son’s leg. The bruise came from Mark Plants whipping the boy with a belt after an incident with Plants’ stepson.

Morris said he is currently overseeing more than 400 domestic cases and “hundreds” of protective orders. He said if there is no special prosecutor, defendants and victims could make the case that the prosecution was “tainted.”

“It’s an extremely important job and lives are at risk when the prosecutor is not functioning properly,” Morris said Tuesday.

Officials have said Morris’ compensation is commensurate with his level of experience.

However, costs have since ballooned as the Plants saga drags on.

Last week, the state Supreme Court decided not to suspend Plants’ law license, finding that disqualifying him from prosecuting certain cases was sufficient.

Justices also said proceedings against the prosecutor should “continue toward resolution as expeditiously as possible” because of the cost of the special prosecutor.

Because of that language, commissioners said they are going to hold off on considering starting a petition to remove Plants from office until more of the investigation work is complete.

Until then, commissioners renewed their call for Plants to resign.

“The one person that could resolve this situation is Mr. Plants,” Hardy said. “The right thing to do here is remove yourself from the conflict.”

In a media release Tuesday, Plants said he believes his offer is the best cost-saving solution.

“I think it’s a great idea to use money from my office’s drug forfeiture account to offset these costs,” Plants said in the release. “This is not tax-dollar money; this is money seized from dangerous drug dealers.”

Assistant Kanawha Prosecutor James Bailey said the office hasn’t yet discussed what would be cut from the budget but said from a personal standpoint, before anything else is cut, he would be willing to take a salary cut to help out.

“I can’t speak for everyone but I know at least 10 to 15 other people who feel the same as I do . . . I would be willing to sacrifice a portion of my salary in order to fix the problem.”

The news release notes the drug forfeiture account isn’t regularly used by the office and that the $111,592 is “significantly greater than Morris’ yearly salary when he was employed full-time by the prosecuting attorney’s office.”

Carper said Plants’ office has used the account to fund travel expenses for conferences in the past including “a trip to Magic Kingdom” for a conference in 2012, among other things.

The commission has already moved $100,000 from its rainy day fund to cover the cost of the special prosecutors. If the money runs out, the commission may consider using additional rainy day funds.

“The public should be outraged their property tax dollars are being used for this,” Hardy said, calling the use of county funds “a bitter pill to swallow because those are dollars that could be used for many other things.”

Commissioners have also criticized the Prosecutor’s Office for lack of transparency in the situation, including Tuesday, when no one from the Prosecutor’s Office attended the commission meeting.

“They’re going to have to come over here and one day they’re going to have to explain this stuff,” Carper said.

Besides the situation with the domestic violence cases, Plants has also come under scrutiny in recent months after a Daily Mail report in January found his new wife, Sarah Plants, received thousands of dollars in pay raises when she worked as his secretary before they were married and while Plants was still married to Allison Plants.

Sarah Plants also was ticketed three times for non-moving violations, but two of those were dismissed by an assistant prosecutor’s motion or approval.

Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said in a letter submitted to the Charleston Gazette last week that Plants’ actions in office are affecting his role as county prosecutor.

“While prosecutor, Plants had an affair with his secretary,” Jones wrote. “She had Plants’ baby while married to a Charleston police officer, and both families wound up in divorces.”

“The problem is that his personal situation continues to have significant legal and financial consequences for other government entities, including the city of Charleston, from which many cases end up in the jurisdiction of his office,” Jones wrote in the Gazette.

The city of Charleston filed the complaint against Plants that led to his disqualification from domestic cases.

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