Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants and his chief of staff, Dan Holstein, were sharply questioned on Thursday by Circuit Judge Duke Bloom and the special prosecutor Bloom appointed to handle domestic-violence related cases while Plants faces his own criminal charges.
“Why are you meddling in a matter you have no standing to participate in?” the judge asked Plants and Holstein during a hearing Thursday morning.
Last week, Holstein asked Bloom to cut special prosecutor Don 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.
A clearly agitated Morris -- who at one point in the hearing told Plants to stop smirking -- told the judge Thursday he believed the motion was filed to take attention off Plants. Two days before Holstein’s motion was filed, County Commissioner Dave Hardy said Plants should resign, and commissioners discussed filing a petition to have him removed from office.
After Plants was charged with domestic battery of his 11-year-old son and violating a domestic violence protective order, both misdemeanors, Bloom appointed Morris and three assistant prosecutors in Plants’ office to help Morris and no longer report to Plants. Commissioners are paying Morris $200 an hour to handle all of the county’s cases involving child abuse and neglect, violent crimes against children by parents or guardians and criminal violations of protective orders.
Morris said Thursday he could use an additional assistant, but he didn’t know who that would be from Plants’ office, because assistant prosecutors there have their own cases. The most important thing now is to keep the offices separate, he said. Bloom said the option would be explored and an order could be entered later to appoint an additional assistant if necessary.
Morris told Bloom he believed Holstein’s motion attacked him as special prosecutor -- and the judge agreed.
“How many of those jurors sitting up there in the box have read the paper and are thinking I’m nothing but a money-grubbing lawyer?” Morris asked.
“It’s not inequitable,” Bloom said of Morris’ pay. “While I didn’t set the fee, I believe the county commission was entirely proper [when they set the pay rate].”
The filing from Plants’ chief of staff sends a message to the public “that undermines the independence and integrity of the special prosecutor,” the judge said.
Holstein filed an amended motion 10 minutes before Thursday’s hearing that changed his description of Morris’ salary from “grossly excessive” to “inequitable.” Holstein told the judge Thursday that prosecutors were trying only to recommend a cost-saving measure.
“Now they’re saying my fee is no longer grossly excessive, it’s just unfair,” Morris said. “I didn’t set the fee, your honor. I didn’t ask for this job ... I care about the citizens of Kanawha County, I care about the prosecutor’s office, I care about the system.”
Morris said he wasn’t there to fight to keep his salary, but defend the special prosecutor’s office.
“I don’t mean to sound angry, judge, I don’t usually lose my temper,” Morris said, adding he could be working on cases instead of defending himself.
“You can sit there and smirk all you want to, Mark. It’s not funny, there’s nothing funny about this,” Morris said, looking at Plants.
Morris retired last year after spending 27 years as an assistant Kanawha prosecutor. He took a job as an attorney with J.B. Akers, the husband of former Kanawha assistant prosecutor Maryclaire Akers, whom Plants fired.
Kanawha County officials are also paying $125 an hour to special prosecutor Sid Bell to prosecute Plants on the two misdemeanor charges. An agreement had been reached over those charges that would have essentially put them on hold for a year -- but the deal is apparently illegal, because it calls for Plants to enter a pre-trial diversion program that isn’t allowed for people accused of domestic violence crimes.
Plants said after the hearing that the calls for his resignation are premature, but said he has “no intention of sticking around for a year, costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars ... as a taxpayer, I’m appalled by that.”
Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1723.