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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 22, 2018

Iowa Supreme Court reinstates Watkins

Majority rules Watkins’s conduct not enough to justify removal; three justices dissent
By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor | Jul 06, 2018
Abraham Watkins

The Iowa Supreme Court has reinstated Abraham Watkins to be Van Buren County Attorney, reversing the decision of the district court that heard his case in the fall of 2016.

The vote to reinstate Watkins was 4-3. The majority voted to overrule the district court’s decision to remove Watkins from office for sexual harassment. One of them, Justice Brent Appel, agreed with the majority opinion written by Justice Bruce Zager, but disagreed with the way he presented some facts, and thus wrote his own opinion.

Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Daryl Hechte, in which he wrote, “Sexual harassment will not end until it is seen as serious enough to end.”

Justice David Wiggins wrote his own dissent, arguing, “We must stop making excuses. Enough is enough. Sexual harassment is a real problem affecting real individuals.”

The two other justices who joined Zager’s majority opinion were Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield.


Review of facts at trial

Zager includes a summary of facts relevant to the case in his opinion. Watkins opened a solo legal practice in 2013, and in November of the following year, was elected Van Buren county attorney. A 20-year-old woman known as Victim 2 began working for Watkins in his county attorney’s office and in his private law office in 2015. Victim 2 assisted Watkins and his wife Renee with their young daughters and socialized with them outside the office, including visiting waterparks and staying in hotels together.

Victim 2 resigned from her position Aug. 9, 2016, stating in her resignation letter, “I have learned many things in my time here, including what makes a hostile work environment.” Under her reason for leaving, she wrote, “Due to aberrant behavior and a hostile work environment, I no longer can continue my position and feel confident about coming into work.”

Chris Kauffman, a friend of Watkins, encouraged her to write down all her complaints against Watkins, a list that totaled 55 items during the previous two years.

“While the majority of [Victim 2’s] complaints dealt with work assignments and the lack of respect she felt she received, several of the complaints involved conduct potentially amounting to sexual harassment,” Zager wrote.

Watkins’s private law firm was on the first floor of his house, and on two occasions Watkins came down stairs wearing only boxer briefs while Victim 2 was in the office. On another occasion, Watkins showed Victim 2 two nude photos of his wife and a video in which his wife accidentally squirted breast milk in Victim 2’s car. The display of the photographs and the video occurred after work hours in the kitchen while Victim 2 was having dinner with the Watkins’ family.

Watkins made several sexual comments to Victim 2, some of which were done in the workplace. On one occasion, he commented that her “boobs [were] distracting him.” On another occasion, after seeing a particular woman, he told Victim 2, “Man, I wouldn’t want to see her naked.” Watkins also complained to Victim 2 that his wife did not want to have sex, and that he wished he had a wife who wanted to have sex with him all the time.

On a different occasion, Victim 2 was speaking with Renee about her visit to a gynecologist. Watkins overheard the conversation and began to pester Victim 2 about what was wrong with her, asking if her private parts were “broken.” On another occasion, Watkins asked Victim 2 if her privates were “still broken.” After Renee left the home with their daughters to visit family in August 2016, Watkins called Victim 2, and during the call, commented that he was glad he had kept nude photos of his old girlfriends.


Removal proceedings commence

Assistant County Attorney Virginia Barchman forwarded Victim 2’s letter of resignation to Jon Swanson, the attorney for Van Buren County. Swanson notified the board of supervisors, who held two closed sessions to discuss the allegations against Watkins. The board hired former Iowa Assistant Attorney General Tom Miller to conduct an investigation. Miller interviewed Barchman, Kauffman, Victim 2 and the Van Buren County Sheriff, but did not interview Watkins or his wife.

Miller recommended the board remove Watkins from office by appointing an acting county attorney, as opposed to an alternative method whereby five registered voters of the county bring a removal petition. The board hired F. Montgomery Brown to be acting county attorney, who initiated Watkins’s removal.

The state sought Watkins’s removal on five separate grounds, four of which it claimed constituted “willful misconduct or maladministration in office,” in violation of Iowa Code Section 66.1A(2). The charges against Watkins were that he: created a hostile work environment that included sexual harassment; supplied a minor with alcohol; that he retaliated; and that he accepted three private-practice cases that created conflicts of interest with his position as county attorney. The petition also sought his removal on the ground that he had been intoxicated in violation of Iowa Code section 66.1A(6).

Watkins filed a motion to dismiss the removal petition, arguing that Miller was not an impartial investigator because he had previously worked with Barchman, but the district court denied his motion.


Watkins removed from office

In January 2017, District Court Judge James Drew ordered Watkins’s removal solely based on the sexual harassment claim. Drew found “a significant contrast between the recollections of the state’s witnesses versus the recollections of Mr. Watkins; his wife; and current employee, Ms. Richardson.” The district court found the state’s witnesses more credible and considered their testimony more credible because, according to Drew, nothing indicated they fabricated their testimony or had a substantial personal interest in the outcome in comparison to Watkins’s witnesses, who were not eager to testify.

The district court heard from another female employee of Watkins’s, Victim 1, who testified she missed a phone call from Watkins after removal proceedings against him had begun. She returned his call and told him she didn’t answer because she was in the shower. Victim 1 testified that Watkins told her she should have FaceTimed with him while she was in the shower, meaning to do a video chat. She testified that he then said, “This is probably why I’m in trouble for sexual harassment.”

In his appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court, Watkins presented the following reasons why the district court’s ruling should be reversed: his conduct did not amount to willful misconduct or maladministration in office; the investigator was not impartial, as promised in the employee handbook; and the board of supervisors failed to implement the progressive disciplinary procedures set forth in the handbook.


Majority opinion

The majority opinion, written by Zager, states that Watkins was improperly removed from office because the district court did not discuss precedents interpreting chapter 66 (dealing with removing elected officials). Instead, the district court focused on three things: that Watkins repeatedly engaged in “unacceptable behavior;” that Watkins’s conduct could create monetary liability for the county; and that the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct prohibit “any physical or verbal act of a sexual nature that has no legitimate place in a legal setting.”

The majority opinion noted the importance of protecting and supporting victims of sexual harassment, and commented that Watkins’s actions and statements were “disgraceful, disrespectful, and inappropriate.” However, it said that is not the standard by which to judge whether the state has met its burden, establishing that Watkins committed willful misconduct or maladministration in office by creating a sexually hostile work environment.

Zager noted that many of the alleged incidents occurred outside the workplace or in the context of Watkins’s friendship with certain witnesses rather than in the office or in his official capacity as county attorney.

“By all accounts, the Law Office of Abraham Watkins/the county attorney’s office was an unstructured environment,” Zager wrote. “[Victim 2] got along well with Watkins and considered herself a close friend to Renee. The individuals in the office teased and played pranks on each other. Watkins, Renee, and [Victim 2] discussed intimate details of their lives with one another. They socialized with one another on a frequent basis, including at least two overnight trips that included the Watkinses’ children.”

The majority wrote that Victim 2 testified at trial that when she was referring to a “hostile work environment” in her letter of resignation, she was referring to the yelling and uncomfortableness in the office and not a hostile work environment in the sexual harassment sense. Furthermore, the majority noted that most of the inappropriate comments and photographs Watkins subjected Victim 2 to did not concern Victim 2 herself, and many were made outside work hours.

“There is no evidence that Watkins sought to misuse his office or his position of power or authority to obtain anything from Wallingford or anyone else,” Zager wrote. “The testimony reveals that Watkins believed his sexual comments and jokes were made in the context of his personal relationship with [Victim 2] – because he believed that was the type of relationship they had: one in which they joked, teased, and made sarcastic remarks to one another in the office.”

Zager added that Watkins’s comments crossed the line, but his state of mind is relevant in considering his culpability under Chapter 66.

“While we agree that Watkins’s conduct was voluntary, thoughtless and offensive, the evidence does not show that he conducted himself in such a way that it was done willfully with an evil purpose,” Zager wrote.


Dissenting opinions

Chief Justice Mark Cady, joined by Daryl Hecht, stressed that the court is obligated to not only look back at historical precedent but also to consider evolving standards and expectations of public officials. He commented on how the court is able to see the wrongness of rulings from years ago affirming discriminatory laws against women.

Cady took issue with the majority opinion for regarding sexual jokes not directed at a victim as being “insensitive” but nevertheless tolerable. He wrote that it “trivializes the lived experiences of those who have been forced to withstand them.”

“A finding that Watkins’s comments ‘did not concern [Victim 2] herself rests on a defunct and antiquated view of hostile work environments,” Cady wrote. “Watkins was speaking about women. He was commenting on the bodies of women. He was objectifying and sexualizing women. [Victim 2] was required to endure a slew of degradations directed solely at women – a class of which she is a member.”

Justice David Wiggins wrote his own dissent. He objected to the majority’s contention that the fact many of the alleged incidents occurred outside work hours is meaningful.

He wrote that behaviors outside the workplace can still contribute to a hostile work environment.

“Wouldn’t a victim whose supervisor subjects her to harassment over the weekend feel uncomfortable, anxious, and fearful of her supervisor when she sees him back at work on Monday? I would answer yes,” he wrote.

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