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Neighbors Growing Together | Oct 21, 2017

Court hears arguments in Watkins’s appeal

By Rusty Ebert, Ledger correspondent | Sep 20, 2017

KEOSAUQUA — The Iowa Supreme Court heard oral arguments Thursday in Abraham Watkins’s appeal of his removal as Van Buren County Attorney.

The court was asked by Alfredo Parrish, Watkins’s attorney, to nullify a Jan. 3 District Court decision that removed Watkins from his position as county attorney.

In that decision, District Court Judge James Drew said that the state proved that Watkins “engaged in misconduct or maladministration by regularly committing sexual harassment” and ordered him removed from office.

Supervisors, in authorizing a special prosecutor to file the removal petition, cited, as one of the reasons, the potential liability that Watkins created in his alleged behavior.

Supervisors became involved after a county employee in Watkins’ office resigned on August 9, 2016, citing a “hostile work environment.” The county hired a private investigator, who had worked in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office, to research the situation and report back to the board, which ultimately agreed to pursue removal.

Iowa Code 66, which deals with the removal of public officials, does not specifically allow supervisors to directly file a petition for removal. But it does allow for a county attorney to do that. Chapter 66 also allows the Iowa Attorney General to file a petition for removal. Chapter 331 of Iowa Code allows supervisors to have a county attorney appointed.

Citing a conflict of interest, supervisors asked the court to appoint Montgomery Brown as acting county attorney for this purpose. The District Court did, and Brown prosecuted the case. Some justices were skeptical at this approach. One said to Solicitor General Jeffrey Thompson, “Nowhere listed in Chapter 66 is there authorization for the board of supervisors to file the petition.

“I am very troubled by the board of supervisors manipulating and doing legal wrangling under 331 to allow you to do this. There is a clear mechanism on who can authorize this and if you don’t use it, that’s a problem for me,” said one justice.

The arguments were live streamed, and it was not possible to determine the names of the justices who made their comments.

The District Court found that the supervisors had the authority under Iowa Code 331 to appoint an attorney to act as county attorney when the elected county attorney has a conflict of interest and that Montgomery Brown was a county attorney for the purposes of Iowa Code 66.3(5).

Iowa Code 66 permits a removal petition to be filed by a county attorney “who in this case was Mr. Brown- an acting county attorney with all of the authority and responsibilities of an elected county attorney,” argued Thompson.

Parrish argued that Chapter 331 in this case had no application in Chapter 66. Section 66.12 permits the court to appoint an attorney to prosecute a removal against a county attorney.

The question for the court to decide, is 66.12 the “exclusive” means in which a county attorney be removed, or do the supervisors have the ability to use Code 331 to ask the court to appoint a county attorney?

Another justice asked whether the case was “more of a political problem.”

“Why shouldn’t the citizens wait until the next election?” he asked.

Another question the supreme court will decide is whether sexual harassment was a “removable offense.”

One justice asked Parrish of a hypothetical situation, where the county attorney’s office was “drenching with sexually hostile remarks, can the county attorney be removed?”

Parrish admitted that removal was one option, but there are other steps as well.

“We’re not asking the endorsement of the statements.”

In his ruling for removal, Judge Drew said the following: “During his tenure as county attorney, Mr. Watkins has engaged in a pattern of conduct that is unacceptable by any reasonable standard. The fact that Mr. Watkins is an attorney trained in the law makes his behavior all the more troublesome. Citizens have the right to trust that their elected officials will not engage in certain types of behaviors in the workplace. Mr. Watkins has repeatedly violated that trust. In light of his pattern of behavior, it is appropriate that he be removed from office. If an elected county official is the perpetrator of sexual harassment the county could be required to pay damages for a meritorious claim. Furthermore, irrespective of the threat of a lawsuit sexual harassment in any workplace, especially by an elected official, is simply unacceptable behavior. His actions were clearly intentional. Mr. Watkins has created a potential liability for the county and, in light of his history, there is little reason to believe he would not continue to act in the same manner going forward.”

Parrish asked the supreme court to dismiss the case because it was “infected by a conflict of interest” and that the supervisors “failed to explore less drastic options.”

He said the investigator hired by the county was a friend of then assistant county attorney Virginia Barchman, who was one of the complainants in the matter.

Parrish also said the supervisors could have had a recall election or taken the matter “to the press.”

Parrish said the state “failed to prove Watkins committed sexual harassment with an evil or corrupt intent and that the action brought against Watkins “was unlawfully initiated.”

“Words alone, without proper context, cannot create sexual harassment,” Parrish.

“The investigator did not speak to Watkins or Renee as part of his investigation and supervisors were incorrectly informed Watkins had refused the state bar’s request that he seek treatment.”

Parrish also argued that one of the victims in the case, an employee in Watkins office, cited the “biggest factor” that made the office “hostile” was the arguing between Watkins and Renee and agreed that “all of Watkins’ sexual comments occurred months before she decided to resign.”

That employee cited a “hostile work environment.”

However, the employee also testified “I resigned because of his conduct toward me and in my presence made me uncomfortable to a degree that I could no longer tolerate,” according to Jeffrey Thompson, attorney for the State of Iowa handling the appeal.

Thompson said the removal action was justified and Judge Drew was correct in removing Watkins from office.

“The state proved that Watkins committed willful misconduct or maladministration in office when he engaged in sexual harassing conduct,” Thompson told the court.

“The Van Buren County Board of Supervisors were not required to pursue other options.”

The supreme court justices took the matter under advisement and will issue its opinion at a later date. They did not say how long it would take.

 

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