OVERLAND PARK, Kan. – Following a story KSHB 41 has been following for five years, the district attorney who handled the death of an Overland Park teenager is now under investigation.
Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe is being investigated by the Disciplinary Administrator’s office.
That watchdog agency is an arm of the Kansas Supreme Court, and its primary role is to investigate allegations of attorney misconduct.
In this case, the ODA is investigating whether Howe engaged in unethical conduct in his handling of the police which resulted in the killing of John Albers.
It has been five years since John Albers was shot and killed by an Overland Park police officer.
The teenager was experiencing a mental health crisis, resulting in a social scrutiny in his home.
But, before the police could announce themselves to Albers, she began backing her parents’ minivan out of the garage.
It was then that Officer Clayton Jennison fired 13 shots at the vehicle, hitting and killing the 17-year-old.
After the shooting, Howe declined to press criminal charges against Jennison.
“He felt like he was the one about to be hit, that the vehicle was going to hit him and believed that, based on the evidence we have available, it was a reasonable belief and under Kansas law that he would not face prosecution charges “, Howe shared in a February 2018 press conference.
But Albers’ mom, Sheila, refers to a statement released by the Justice Department following their investigation into the case, calling it a contradiction.
“When you line up these two statements, side by side, the facts contradict each other,” said Sheila Albers. “So, I’ve decided to file a complaint with what they call the Disciplinary Administrator’s Office.”
Four months after filing a complaint with the ODA, Sheila Albers received a response from that group saying they would be conducting a formal investigation.
“In the professional standards for attorneys in the state of Kansas, there’s a standard that says they must be truthful and accurate in any statement they make regarding a case they’re working on, and I think Steve Howell has misled the public.” Sheila Albers said.
In particular, it indicates two documents.
One, the press release released by Howe’s office in 2018, which says the officer “was standing directly behind the minivan, which accelerated toward the officer” when he fired the first two shots.
Meanwhile, the statement released last fall by the Justice Department said “John Albers began slowly pulling the minivan out of the garage,” adding that the officer “got out of the way of the minivan when he opened fire.”
“I mean, those are very different stories,” Sheila Albers said.
The survey: how common is it and what are the possible outcomes?
But are these differences sufficient to be considered unethical conduct?
That’s a question KSHB 41 asked Steve Leben, a UMKC Law School professor and former judge who now teaches legal ethics.
“Well, I don’t know enough about the specifics of this case,” Leben said. “What I can say is that legal ethics rules prohibit lawyers from engaging in dishonest behavior or misrepresentation, and this is true whether you are in your private business dealings or in your public role as a lawyer. So , if a lawyer were to make public intentionally false statements, that would be a violation of the rules of professional conduct for lawyers.”
We also asked him how often district attorneys find themselves at the center of these kinds of investigations.
“There have been other cases in Kansas where district attorneys or assistant district attorneys have been investigated for complaints,” Leben said. “And there was a lawyer in Shawnee County, an assistant district attorney, who’s been disbarred for the past two years. He suggests either disbarment or indefinite suspension, at least in cases that have recently been prosecuted in Kansas.”
We asked the same questions of Steve McAllister, the former US Attorney who referred the Albers case to the Justice Department.
“It’s not uncommon for people to complain about prosecutors or prosecutors,” McAllister said. “But it’s rare for the ODA to open an investigation, especially when the situation hasn’t resulted in someone being charged or convicted.”
As for any disciplinary action, if the ODA ruled that a lawyer’s behavior is unethical, that would go to the Kansas Supreme Court.
Leben says it can range from an informal warning, to probation, to disbarment.
KSHB 41 contacted Howe, who declined to comment given the ongoing investigation.
Similarly, the city of Overland Park said it had no comment.
At last check, an email requesting comment from the Overland Park Police Department went unanswered.
Response from the disciplinary administrator’s office
KSHB 41 Information received by the ODA on this case.
“Whether or not a complaint has been filed against an attorney is not a matter of public record,” the office said in part. “The Disciplinary Administrator’s Office is unable to provide any information as to whether a complaint has been received and whether a complaint is being investigated.”
They also explained, “Documented disciplinary complaints are investigated by full-time internal investigators employed by the Disciplinary Administrator’s Office or attorneys who are members of a complaints and ethics committee.”
As for the procedure followed by the ODA, they shared it with us:
Upon receipt of an investigative report, the disciplinary administrator prepares a report, pursuant to Rule 209, to the Review Committee of the Kansas Bar Disciplinary Board. The review committee reviews the complaint, the attorney’s response(s), the investigative report, and perhaps the attachments to the complaint, the attorney’s responses, and the investigative report. After review, the Review Committee directs one of the following: “(1) dismissal of documented complaint for lack of probable cause of a violation; (2) rejection of the verbal complaint for lack of clear and convincing evidence of a violation, with or without a warning letter; (3) referral of the defendant to the attorney diversion program; (4) informal admonition of the defendant; or (5) a hearing on a formal complaint before a hearing panel. Only the informal admonitions and discipline imposed by the Supreme Court under Article 225 (types of discipline) are matters of public record. When the Supreme Court imposes discipline under Rule 225, the Supreme Court issues a written opinion which is published in the Kansas Reports and made available on the Supreme Court’s website.