Prosecutor fighting discipline over role in police sex investigation

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Editor’s note: This article contains language some readers may find offensive.

The elected prosecutor of Knox County in southwestern Indiana faces an attorney discipline case related to his conduct stemming from a local police investigation into his former chief deputy prosecutor’s relationship with a woman who was serving time on drug charges. An attorney for the prosecutor, however, is contesting the discipline case and says the prosecutor is the victim of a vendetta born of the small-town rumor mill.

Knox County Prosecutor J. Dirk Carnahan is accused in an attorney discipline complaint of offensive personality and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice. The ethics charges are based on his actions during and after he complained about an investigation by a Vincennes police detective who interviewed an inmate regarding allegations that the inmate, who was serving time on a meth conviction, had been sexually involved with a Knox County prosecutor.

Carnahan’s former chief deputy prosecutor, Joseph Burton of Farmersburg, was suspended for 90 days with automatic reinstatement Jan. 29 in an order issued by the Indiana Supreme Court. Carnahan is facing discipline for allegations against him related to the same case, but he is not accused of any inappropriate relationship.

Burton was suspended from the practice of law for his retaliation against the Vincennes police detective who interviewed the woman in jail with whom Burton had a 20-year-long, on-and-off sexual relationship, according to the court.

The Indiana Supreme Court Disciplinary Commission says Carnahan filed a misconduct complaint against the officer, Det. Stacy Reese, with the Vincennes Police Department. After Reese was cleared by the Vincennes Police Merit Commission, Carnahan sent an email to Police Chief Dusty Luking, which forms the crux of the ethics complaint against Carnahan. The complaint against Carnahan quotes extensively the email he sent Luking, who viewed the email as threatening. In part, the email reads:

“I have heard rumors that you have molested a child. I have no complainant nor any indication that the rumors are true. However, I intend to launch a full-scale investigation. I intend to question your family and friends and repeatedly comment that you are the subject of an official investigation for child molestation. The press may pick up on this and certainly the people you work with every day will hear it. I doubt they will ever again be able to look at you the same way. You will hear whispers among the people you work with. You will wonder how the news of the investigation will affect your children and your family.

Obviously, I would never do such a thing. For a few seconds, you may have felt some of what I feel every day. My complaint has been that Ms. Reese … did even worse than this. They instituted a formal investigation for something that isn’t criminal and for which no complainant had come forward. In the course of this investigation of something that wasn’t criminal and was based solely on ‘rumors’ they repeated to other officers, to the witness they interviewed and others that ‘there are rumors that Dirk has traded sex’ with criminal defendants. If that had happened to you, you would be furious. Your perspective would be entirely different had you been the target of such a thing.”

Carnahan is represented in his discipline case by attorneys from Dentons Bingham Greenebaum including Meg Christensen, who says the discipline order imposed on Burton mischaracterized evidence against Carnahan — specifically, that the detective did not know which prosecutor had been accused of a relationship with the inmate when she interviewed her behind bars.

Christensen also provided excerpts of a deposition of the detective that she said shows the detective knew Burton was the prosecutor who had been involved in a relationship with the inmate at the time she was interviewed, contrary to the stipulated facts in the Burton order. The order in Burton’s case said Reese “had been informed by the Indiana State Police that (the inmate) was having a sexual relationship with ‘your prosecutor,’ but Detective did not know if this meant Carnahan or Respondent.”

“(T)hat is demonstrably false, and this misinformation is not only damaging to Mr. Carnahan’s professional reputation but also infringes upon his right to defend the disciplinary charges pending against him, that we contend lack merit,” Christensen wrote Jan. 30 in an email to Indiana Lawyer.

“It is disappointing that this false information was provided to the Supreme Court, as it grossly misstates the context for the Detective’s later inquiry or investigation regarding Mr. Carnahan, during which the Detective advised the Defendant (a DOC inmate) that there were rumors about Mr. Carnahan,” Christensen wrote. “Mr. Carnahan is rightfully concerned that the presentation of this false information as a stipulated fact in the Burton order prejudices the public perception of the disciplinary charges against him and complicates his ability to defend the disciplinary charges against him.

“… It is also important to note that there are no charges that Mr. Carnahan was involved in any way in any sexual, romantic, or otherwise inappropriate relationship with any criminal defendant or inmate,” Christensen wrote.

In a phone interview with IL, Christensen addressed whether Carnahan regretted sending the email to the police chief. “He could have taken a softer touch, sure, but is that unethical conduct?” In her letter to IL, Christensen wrote, “Mr. Carnahan communicated his concerns about the impact of the Detective’s conduct in an e-mail stating a hypothetical (and clearly rhetorical) example in the hopes that the Chief of Police would understand the concerns and train the Detective to be more cautious in the future.”

“Essentially it’s a vendetta,” Christensen told IL. “It’s a small town, so it’s a rumor mill.”

In its order suspending Burton, the Indiana Supreme Court determined Burton, who retired from the prosecutor’s office amid the investigation, retaliated against the officer who interviewed the inmate, abusing his prosecutorial authority.

After the defendant was convicted, sentenced and incarcerated, the woman informed Burton of the interview, to which he responded of the detective: “that little bitch’s got it coming now; I’ll have that bitch by her fucking hair now,” according to the court order.

The court said Burton also told the woman that Carnahan “went berserk” after learning of the interview and planned to escalate the matter to the Vincennes police chief — a characterization that Christensen disputed. Burton then instructed the woman to supply him and Carnahan with a statement about the interview. Burton also provided the woman with specific guidance on what the statement should say, which was later given to Carnahan, who forwarded the letter to the Vincennes Police Department as part of his complaint.

In its suspension order, the Supreme Court noted that the facts of Burton’s case involve more than an isolated conflict of interest, but rather, an attempt by him “to improperly leverage his prosecutorial authority to exact a personal vendetta against a police detective.”

“Respondent similarly abused his position in an effort to retaliate against a detective who, acting upon information provided to her by another law enforcement agency, was seeking to determine whether Respondent or Carnahan had attempted to trade consideration of leniency in Defendant’s criminal matters over the years for sexual contact. Like the chief deputy in (Matter of Christoff and Holmes, 690 N.E.2d 1135 (Ind. 1997)), Respondent’s overriding motivation was not to further the public interest but rather to protect his own self-interest,” the order states.

Carnahan’s discipline case, In the Matter of John Dirk Carnahan, 19S-DI-310, is set for a final disciplinary hearing June 23-24 in Indianapolis before hearing officer Robert C. Reiling Jr. of Lafayette.•

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