Missouri attorney general seeks to remove Dent County prosecutor

Monday, June 8, 2009 | 7:28 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Attorney General Chris Koster is trying to remove from office a southern Missouri prosecutor, citing a list of allegations that includes refusing to file cases because of a budget dispute with the county commissioners.

Koster's office has filed a petition asking a state trial judge to remove Dent County prosecutor Jessica Sparks. The attorney general's office leveled six accusations of failing to fulfill her duties, two accusations of misusing her office by accusing police of misconduct and one of being involved in domestic disturbances.

St. Louis County Judge James Hartenbach on Friday gave Sparks 10 days to respond to the allegations.

The attorney general's petition is called a "quo warranto" and essentially states that an officeholder has forfeited the right to hold a public office. Deputy Attorney General Joe Dandurand said Monday that such petitions are not filed frequently.

"The reason it's so rare is it's a civil action to request that someone be removed from an office that they've been elected to," said Dandurand, who left a state appeals court this year to work for Koster, a Democrat. "And for that reason, you don't want to use that indiscriminately."

Several attempts to reach Sparks were unsuccessful Monday. She did not immediately return a message seeking comment left at the Dent County prosecutor's office, and a phone number registered to her was disconnected. It did not appear that she has hired a lawyer to represent her.

Sparks, a Republican, was first elected in 2006 and took office Jan. 1, 2007. She's the top prosecutor in a rural southern Missouri county with a population of about 15,000 people located south of Interstate 44 near Rolla.

The controversy about her leadership in the prosecuting attorney's office seems to have picked up this year.

The Salem News, the local newspaper in the Dent County seat, has written several stories highlighting complaints that Sparks hasn't filed cases and detailing her run-ins with police. One article reported that police were called twice within one week about disputes involving Sparks and her husband.

The newspaper reported that Rolla police were called about 1 a.m. on June 2 to a disturbance at a gas station involving Sparks and her husband. On May 29, police were called to a McDonald's in the eastern Missouri town of Cuba after Sparks reported that she had been kidnapped by her husband. In Cuba, police found prescription drugs in the vehicle listed as belonging to Sparks and a loaded gun.

The attorney general's office asserts that Sparks has come to court unprepared and that more than 253 pending felony cases in Dent County have not been filed or prosecuted although the office recognizes charges should brought. The petition seeking to remove Sparks states that she has refused to prosecute those cases because of a budget dispute.

The Dent County prosecutor's office in 2008 had a budget of $170,000, and $149,000 was spent. Sparks in 2009 requested $199,000, and the county commission budgeted $173,000.

Dent County Presiding Commissioner Darrell Skiles said Monday that there have been growing complaints about criminal cases not being filed. He said circuit court fees for the first half of 2008 were three times higher than this year.

Skiles, a Republican who was first elected with Sparks in 2006, said the issue has become a top topic of discussion and that complaints are growing louder. Skiles said he knows Sparks personally and thinks that she is a nice person, but said of her not filing felony cases, "sorry, that dog don't hunt."

"I think if she wanted to do what is in the best interest of herself and the county, she would resign," Skiles said.

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