Lawyer Disciplinary Board chargesﾠPocahontas prosecutor
The Lawyer Disciplinary Board has charged Pocahontas County's prosecuting attorney with violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct in a nearly 60-page document that outlines alleged failure of competence and diligence, alleged failure to expedite litigation and achieve fairness to opposing party and counsel, as well as impartiality and decorum, and alleged misconduct.
The LDB relied on complaints from judges James Rowe and Joseph Pomponio, Sheriff David Jonese, and other law enforcement officers, the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Child Youth and Advocacy Center in charging Pocahontas County Prosecuting Attorney Donna Meadows Price with several violations that span criminal, juvenile and abuse and neglect cases.
In nearly 20 criminal cases, the LDB cites Price's failure to prepare court orders, or to prepare them in a timely manner. In two instances those time lapses resulted in defendants being in jail longer than their sentencing required, the statement said. The statement of charges said Rowe noted in a letter to Price that "the county continues to be assessed incarceration fees" because of the delay.
Price is alleged to have switched magistrates because a defendant charged with speeding believed she could not get a fair hearing in Magistrate Kathy Beverage's court. Rowe denied the defendant's request to change magistrates and the statement of charges said the prosecutor waited until Beverage was unavailable to reduce the charges against the defendant and had the case heard in Magistrate Janet Kershner-Vanover's court. According to state code, cases cannot be transferred to another magistrate without either consent of the magistrate or a court order.
In two juvenile cases, the LDB charges that Price did not attend Multi-Disciplinary Team meetings and did not prepare orders for the cases. According to State Code, "treatment teams assess, plan and implement a comprehensive, individualized service plan for children who are victims of abuse or neglect and their families when a judicial proceeding has been initiated involving the child or children for juveniles and their families."
Further, the statement of charges said that she interviewed a juvenile accused of sexually abusing a younger person in the household. Price interviewed the older juvenile, showing him/her pictures of a juvenile detention facility, the statement said. When the juvenile responded that he/she did not want to go to such a facility and promised that the alleged sexual abuse would cease, Price did not file a juvenile petition in the case, the statement said.
Price was removed from an abuse and neglect case after Rowe discovered that the mother was being used as a confidential informant to make controlled drug buys, the statement said. The mother had completed an in-patient drug rehabilitation program; however, the Multi-Disciplinary Team was recommending her parental rights be revoked, according to the statement. The prosecutor denied there was a conflict, the statement said, and Rowe replaced her with an assistant prosecuting attorney from Greenbrier County.
DHHR workers also allege that Price did not inform them of hearing dates and times, thus cases were disposed without their testimony and both cases resulted in changes of custody, which DHHR was not made aware of, the statement said.
Sheriff David Jonese's complaints stem from Price's alleged failure to prosecute drug arrests, the statement of charges said. Jonese said that of 133 arrests his department made in 2009, 45 were drug charges, according to the statement. "The Sheriff indicated that the cases are disposed of
through dismissal or plea agreements without any knowledge or input from the officers. Further, during plea hearings reducing felony charges to misdemeanors, [Price] has indicated to the Court that the investigating officer agreed with the disposition when the officer was actually unaware of the plea," the Statement of Charges said.
Other law enforcement officers allege that Price dismissed charges without confidential informants giving testimony, that Price told them defendants would plead guilty to felonies, when in fact, they pled guilty to misdemeanor charges and that a defense attorney was ready to have his client plead guilty to a felony when Price offered a lesser charge instead, according to the statement.
Price said Tuesday that she is defending herself on all counts.
"I'm not going away that easy. I'm not going down that easy," Price said. "I'm not going to run from these charges. I obviously contest a large amount of it."
Price said her office was "a little bit" behind on preparing orders. But, she said the number of cases she deals with has increased because the number of law enforcement officers in the county has increased, as well. Community corrections and drug court are two added responsibilities since she took office in 2009, she said.
The prosecutor said she has taken measures to improve her office's response time on preparing orders to 10 days. She noted that a typical court docket may have up to 22 cases.
"We're getting more together," she said.
Price said the "ironic part" of these charges is that documents are missing from cases as far back as 1998 and 1999.
Price said she was removed from the abuse and neglect case, involving the mother who was a confidential informant, by Rowe "from the bench" and not according to procedure.
"I would not sacrifice a child's case for the benefit of some criminal matter," she said.
As for complaints from law enforcement, Price said in some cases she could see things that were problematic that officers could not.
"No disrespect for the job they do," she said. "They're law enforcement; I'm the lawyer. The reasonable outcome isn't always a trial."
Price said since 2009, she has prosecuted two defendants in jury trials and has been prepared for as many as five others that have been moved or resolved themselves.
Price said the sheriff's letter of complaint was "solicited."
"[These charges] appear to be significant because it was signed off on by the judiciary," she said, noting that the only other complaint against her with the Office of Disciplinary Counsel was dismissed without her having to file a response. "I believe it's an attack on my credibility coming into an election year."
Price said she plans to seek re-election.
"I believe in what I do and have not done anything illegal, immoral or unethical," she said. "I've tried my best to do my job."
A hearing was scheduled for later this month, but has been delayed for 90 days because Price's attorneys have alleged that unredacted juvenile court records have been released to the ODC. A special judicial officer has been appointed to deal with that matter, Price said.
Price could face sanctions that range from a private reprimand to the suspension of her law license.