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POKIN AROUND: Judge Thornhill reprimanded; helpful advice on what not to say

POKIN AROUND: Judge Thornhill reprimanded; helpful advice on what not to say

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It wasn't an attempt at a bribe. It was stupidity.

At least that's what a disciplinary panel decided regarding the curious actions of lawyer Matthew Thornhill in 2006. At the time, Thornhill was a St. Charles County assistant prosecutor. Since January 2007, he has been an associate circuit judge.

Last week the Missouri Supreme Court concurred and issued Thornhill a letter of reprimand, the same punishment the disciplinary panel had recommended. The letter is a chastisement that says Thornhill should have had the good sense to inform his supervisors and remove himself from a case that was starting to stink.

A letter of reprimand falls short of disbarment or suspension, which would have removed Thornhill from the bench.

Thornhill told me Monday he'd let his lawyer do his talking.

"Matt has always maintained that his actions were in no way dishonest or corrupt," said Christopher E. McGraugh, Thornhill's lawyer.

The case involved Mary Hart, who was on probation when charged with stealing checks and forging a signature. She cashed three checks for less than $200. In negotiations, prosecutor Thornhill wanted Hart to serve six years in prison.

But defense attorney Brian Zink said that seemed harsh, adding that his client's godfather was none other than Terry Bradshaw, an NFL Hall of Fame quarterback who played for the Steelers.

Thornhill was skeptical but said he would reconsider his sentencing recommendation under two conditions. First, two police officers had to vouch for Hart. Second, she had to provide a baseball signed by Bradshaw. Thornhill had a collection of autographed baseballs in his office.

According to McGraugh, Thornhill doubted Hart really knew Bradshaw. Thornhill sought a baseball, and not a football, because a signed baseball would be harder to acquire and, therefore, more likely to prove a personal relationship.

But the bottom line, McGraugh said, was that Thornhill never in his wildest dreams thought Hart would actually produce a baseball.

"It was like asking for the tail feather of an eagle," McGraugh said.

But lo and behold, Zink - whom Thornhill referred to as "Zinkster" in a letter - calls and says he has it. (The FBI later determined the signature was forged.)

McGraugh said Thornhill never accepted the baseball, declining it even before he knew or suspected there was an investigation.

But Thornhill did significantly drop the charges to misdemeanors even though neither police officer vouched for Hart, according to court documents. And he dropped the charges without notifying his superiors and without telling them the case had acquired an appearance of impropriety.

"He should have told his office earlier what was going on," McGraugh said.

All the charges against Hart eventually were dropped as a result of Thornhill's actions.

So what happened next? What would you expect? Hart boasted to the wrong people that all it took was an autographed baseball to get a case dropped in St. Charles County Circuit Court.

This led to an FBI investigation. And that's where Zink and a colleague in his office, David A. Dalton II, got in trouble. They lied to the FBI about the baseball, according to court records.

To avoid prosecution, both men agreed not to practice law for a year. Dalton was further disciplined by the Missouri Supreme Court and Zink's case is pending.

Jack Banas, St. Charles County prosecuting attorney, is the person who reported Thornhill's questionable actions to the high court, which oversees the disciplinary panel.

On Monday, Banas said it was time for Thornhill, a public official, to speak for himself and apologize for his actions.

"I find it interesting that a public official has to wait for a comment from his lawyer," Banas said.

"I will say the same thing I have said all along," Banas said. "I have been disappointed in all three of these lawyers, especially this young man. I'm disappointed that he has never apologized to the public for what he has done."

Court documents show that Thornhill took steps to cover up what happened. He altered the internal file the office keeps, for example, to delete references to his proposed reduction of charges.

Thornhill commented on the case on Jan. 5, 2007, when he issued a statement blaming Banas for his troubles and saying he was "completely innocent of the improper conduct of which I have been accused."

We now know he's not completely innocent.

The Sept. 30 reprimand letter is in the form of a court order. It is brief and requires that Thornhill pay a court fee of $750. My letter would go something like this:

Dear Judge Thornhill,

It has come to my attention that your use of humor or satire or simply "joking around with the Zinkster" was interpreted by some as the inappropriate solicitation of a bribe.

As a reminder, please refrain from the following phrases, or similar ones:

"With a Bulger jersey that fit, I might be inclined to acquit."

"There ain't no probable cause, without a baseball signed by Wade Boggs."

"I'd like to reschedule but can't, without a motion from Mr. Grant."

I hope these guidelines will prevent future misunderstandings and additional reprimands.

Sincerely,

Steve "don't call me Poke-ster" Pokin

Steve Pokin is a columnist for the Suburban Journals of St. Charles County. He can be reached at spokin@yourjournal.com or by phone a 636-946-6111, ext. 239.

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