ELIZABETHTOWN, Ky. - A Hardin County prosecutor was suspended yesterday and is under investigation by the state attorney general's office over allegations that he had sex with a defendant who had agreed to testify in a drug case.
Erica L. French's lawyer, Kenneth Daniels, said they had a camera installed in her bedroom closet last week and taped her having sex with Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Robert W. Stevens.
Daniels said they decided to record her encounter because French, 29, had complained that Stevens had made inappropriate advances toward her during talks involving her cooperation with the prosecution of other defendants.
According to Daniels, French said that Stevens told her that if she would have sex with him he would use his influence to withdraw her guilty plea and drop charges prior to her sentencing.
On Monday, Daniels told the Kentucky Bar Association, the attorney general's office and the county's three circuit judges about the tape, he said yesterday. He has not turned over copies of the tape, although he has shown portions of it to a reporter at his Elizabethtown office.
Stevens did not respond to telephone messages left late yesterday afternoon.
Daniels met with French yesterday evening and said she would not agree to an interview.
Hardin Circuit Judge Thomas Steven Bland said the judges met yesterday morning and suspended Stevens' access to the courthouse.
Stevens' supervisor, Commonwealth's Attorney Christopher G. Shaw, said that he met with Stevens yesterday morning as he arrived at the courthouse and told him that he was suspended pending the investigation.
Shaw said he learned of the tape Monday night from an assistant in his office.
Shaw declined to say what Stevens told him during their meeting, citing the investigation by the attorney general's office, but he said that he learned enough at the meeting to convince him that Stevens should be suspended.
"I did gain enough information that I felt I needed toput him on leave," Shaw said.
Stevens is married with two children, Shaw said.
Vicki Glass, spokeswoman for Attorney General Greg Stumbo, said that at Shaw's request a special prosecutor would be named to respond to the allegations. The Kentucky State police would help in the investigation, she said.
Shaw said French is scheduled to be sentenced June 8 following a plea bargain that she accepted March 15 and that was approved April 8. Shaw said the plea agreement called for her top lead guilty to five drug charges involving marijuana and possession of some of the ingredients needed to make methamphetamine, and to serve a sentence of five years' probation.
French was offered the plea bargain in part because she has no criminal history, Shaw said.
The agreement also required her to provide information for prosecutors handling the case against co-defendants Billie Joe Strader and Earl Wieman, he said. Stevens was the prosecutor in charge of that case, Shaw said.
Daniels said he likely will ask Circuit Judge Janet P. Coleman to set aside the plea agreement and to dismiss the charges against French because of the "taint" on the case.
Shaw said that although the investigation may turn up other information, he is aware of nothing that suggests French's guilty plea or the charges against the other defendants have been tainted by the allegations against Stevens.
"That may be what the defense counsel wishes will happen, and it may be what Ms. French wants to happen, but I don't think there's anything to suggest that that is what will happen," Shaw said.
"When something like this happens, it affects the trust the public has in this office, and in the court system," Shaw said. "I can only hope that the public won't let this affect their feelings about this office, or about members of the staff here."
Shaw said that a prosecutor other than Stevens negotiated French's plea agreement and that Stevens came in contact with her only after she had entered the plea and agreed to cooperate in the prosecution of Strader and Wieman.
Daniels said that French has told him, but offered no proof, that Stevens made contact in the weeks prior to her plea agreement's being approved.
The 51/2-hour tape was made last Wednesday beginning about 9 a.m., after Stevens had told French he needed to come to her house to watch videos pertinent to the prosecution of Strader and Wieman, Daniels said.
Daniels said he talked to Stevens about the tape on Thursday and Friday. He said Stevens offered to use his influence to have the charges against French dropped if Daniels kept the tape secret.
Daniels said he thought about the situation over the weekend and decided he had no choice but to report what he knew to the court and to the bar association.
Daniels said he advised French not to have sex with Stevens, telling her that even if all he did was proposition her or touch her, that would be evidence of wrongdoing on his part.
"It surprised me quite a bit, but I treat adults as adults," Daniels said. "I had advised her against having sex."
Bland, one of the three judges who learned of the allegations against Stevens on Monday, said it's too early to tell what impact the charges will have on cases on his or other judges' calendars.
"My understanding is that this has been reported to the Kentucky Bar Association and the attorney general's office, and they will both conduct investigations into the matter. As far as what ramifications this will have on the court, it would depend on what actually is determined to have occurred."
Michele Pogrotsky, director of accounting and membership for the bar association, said Stevens' record includes no instances of public discipline. Stevens was admitted to the bar in October 1995, she said.
Shaw said he believes appropriate policies are in place limiting contact between defendants and prosecutors, but a certain amount of trust is required "short of the county providing funds to hire a detective to follow each one of my employees around."
Stevens began his work as a prosecutor in the commonwealth's attorney's office on Jan. 2, 2001, Shaw said. Before that he was in private practice and had been a clerk to Hardin Circuit judges for several months prior to Shaw's election as commonwealth's attorney in 2000.
Yesterday's news of Stevens' placement on administrative leave left members of the office in shock, he said.
"There has been sadness mostly," Shaw said.
"Frustration and embarrassment for the office, of course, but mostly people have felt sadness for somebody they had worked with and for somebody they did care about."
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