Knox County Prosecutor Dirk Carnahan on Tuesday asked county council members to pay the legal fees from a court battle that stemmed from a complaint filed against him two years ago, one from which he has since been cleared of all wrong-doing.
Carnahan said his life has been turned upside down as a result of the complaint and subsequent court proceedings; he couldn’t, he said, speak publicly about the process until a final ruling was made.
“I spent nearly two years listening to gossip and slander. It’s affected my reputation, my family and my ability to do my job,” he told the council. “And there wasn’t any way to end it quickly and cheaply.”
He told the council he paid the first $30,000 in legal fees himself, but there is still a remaining balance owed to his attorney, Mike Steiner, a former Martin County prosecutor and former president of the Association of Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys.
He argued before the council that the complaint was not filed against Carnahan “the private lawyer, the private citizen,” but as the prosecuting attorney, a county elected official in the process of doing the county’s business.
“I was doing my job as the elected prosecutor of this county,” he said. “And this money, this $106,000, this is lose your house money, not able to pay for your kids’ college money.”
Carnahan was exonerated this fall following a more than year-long investigation into the complaint filed by the Disciplinary Commission of the Supreme Court of Indiana, one that stemmed from troubles that transpired nearly two years ago between the prosecutor’s office and city police.
Disciplinary complaints were filed by the commission against both former county deputy prosecutor Joseph Burton and Carnahan stemming from their reaction to an inquiry made by VPD Det. Sgt. Stacy Reese in the spring of 2018.
Reese, according to this and previous rulings in the matter, went to visit a female inmate being held in Greene County to investigate rumors that she had been engaged in a sexual relationship with someone in the Knox County prosecutors’ office; that person was later identified as Burton.
Burton, who retired in April of 2018, suffered a 90-day suspension of his law license as a result.
Upon learning of the interview, Carnahan, according to the initial complaint, reached out to Luking, stressing to him that such a conversation wouldn’t have been appropriate; an investigation into possible misconduct at the county prosecutor’s office would need to be handled by a third-party.
Carnahan then filed a complaint with the VPD Merit Commission, but its members cleared Reese and declared the complaint unfounded.
In response to the merit commission’s dismissal of his concerns, Carnahan emailed Luking directly, the entire contents of which have been included in multiple court documents.
Carnahan essentially threatens to launch an investigation into rumors of misconduct on Luking’s part, specifically of child molestation. Later, however, he writes that he’s only kidding and had no actual plans of the kind.
Carnahan goes on to tell Luking that he was merely trying to make a point about the dangers of unfounded allegations, especially when they are made public.
The Supreme Court later found that Carnahan did not intend for his email to be “perceived as a threat,” court documents say.
Too, witnesses during the court battle testified that Carnahan wasn’t unethical or vindictive, and the order itself called Luking’s own testimony “lacking credibility” due to inconsistency.
The Supreme Court order went on to say the disciplinary commission did not prove with “clear and convincing evidence” that Carnahan exhibited an “offensive personality” as spelled out in the Oath of Attorneys, so it withdrew the allegations.
Carnahan did not face any disciplinary actions as a result.
And while his name, so to speak, has been cleared, the bill for the associated legal fees remains, and Carnahan argued that financial assistance from the county should be offered to cover it.
But he has a plan, at least for some of it.
The prosecutor’s office collects a portion of user fees collected as a result of cases filed and finished; since his election, Carnahan said he’s brought in more than $732,000 in user fees.
State statute specifically lays out how that money can be spent, Carnahan said, and his office holds primary control.
That said, he has always sought, in good faith, the county’s blessing to spend it. It’s divided — although Carnahan argues unnecessarily and not in accordance with state statute — into multiple line items for specific purchases. He wants to transfer $25,000 of those user fees into a line item out of which he can pay his attorney directly.
Such action is legal under state law, he said, because the only burden of proof is that it “benefits the prosecutor’s office.”
Carnahan plans to later submit a claim for the rest, and it would then be up to the council to find the money to pay for it.
If it’s not paid, at least in part, soon, his legal counsel is likely to sue the county, Carnahan said.
And using as much of the user fees as possible, Carnahan believes best.
“It’s not tax money, and payment of this bill (with these fees) is allowed under state statute,” he argued. “It will not affect any other county office in any way whatsoever.
“There is zero harm to the county,” he argued.
The council, in the end, did vote to allow for the transfer of the $25,000, although council president Bob Lechner voted no, saying it was putting the “cart before the horse.”
Part of that is because county attorney Andrew Porter said that a quick consult with the State Board of Accounts is necessary to make sure they won’t get “red flagged” later for the expenditure during an audit.
Councilman David Culp expressed his sympathy for Carnahan, and he said he’s often wondered if some kind of policy isn’t necessary for elected officials who are sued by someone they’ve aggrieved simply by going about their expected duties.
“What happens if, in doing the responsibilities set before me as a member of the council, someone sued me privately?” he asked. “Where does that put me — or my colleagues, should it happen to them?
“And I find very disturbing that as an employer, county government does not want to protect its employees,” he continued. “The corporations of America do whatever they can to protect their employees in doing the job they were hired to do.
“So to me, this just doesn’t make sense.”
Carnahan, too, said there are precedents across Indiana of other counties paying such legal fees if and when their prosecutor is sued, which can happen often due to the nature of the job.
Councilman Rich Chattin wondered if the city didn’t hold some liability in the matter, but Carnahan’s attorney said, should Carnahan choose to pursue it, that would be decided in civil court.
Councilman Harry Nolting, too, indicated his willingness to cooperate, but he wanted to follow the advice of their own legal counsel, which is to consult the State Board of Accounts first on the proper procedures.
“We just don’t want to get into any trouble,” Nolting said.
Lechner, too, said the county had always been in “lock, step and compliance” with the State Board of Accounts, and he didn’t want to stop now.
The council is expected to take back up discussions of the matter once Porter has answers from the State Board of Accounts.