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Neighbors Growing Together | Oct 21, 2017

Supervisors petition to remove Van Buren County Attorney

By RUSTY EBERT Ledger correspondent | Oct 05, 2016

KEOSAUQUA – Van Buren County Board of Supervisors have filed action seeking to remove Van Buren County Attorney Abraham Watkins from office.

It cites three reasons: that Watkins created a “hostile work environment,” including a pattern of conduct of sexual harassment against more than one county employee; that Watkins was intoxicated during duties of the county attorney, including at a trial; and that Watkins accepted private employment  in conflict with previously prosecuted criminal action.

Supervisors said that the allegations are in violation of county rules and/or Iowa Code and ethics rules and that the charge of sexual harassment subjected the county to “unreasonable risk of liability under federal and Iowa law.”

The petition, filed Friday, seeks to invoke an Iowa law that allows judges to remove elected officials from office for misconduct.

The county has authorized F. Montgomery Brown of West Des Moines to file the petition.

It specifically asks that Watkins “be removed from the office of County Attorney of Van Buren County Iowa for willful misconduct or maladministration in the office and for intoxication as authorized by [Iowa Code] and that he be ordered to return all county property in his possession …”

The petition accuses Watkins of commenting on the appearance of a female employee’s anatomy, speculating about an employee’s sexual health and  appearing at work in the presence of female county employees wearing nothing below the waist except for a pair of underwear (“briefs”). It also alleged that Watkins displayed to a female employee photographs of a nude female and “by making other unwelcome and offensive comments of a sexual nature creating a hostile work environment.”

The petition states that this is in violation of Iowa rules and Van Buren County’s employee manual.

“The above described misconduct and maladministration and any failure to seek prompt corrective measures, including removal action, subjects Van Buren County to unreasonable risk of liability under federal and Iowa law.”

The petition states that Watkins “accepted private employment in connection with a matter sufficiently or substantially related to a criminal prosecution previously prosecuted by the office of the Van Buren County Attorney. Defendant accepted the private employment even though he knew such employment was in conflict with the pending criminal matter. This misconduct is in violation of Iowa Code and contrary to and non-compliance with the Iowa Rules of Professional Conduct.”

The petition does not specify the case.

Also, the petition stated that Watkins engaged in intoxication in violation of Iowa Code, which allows the district court to remove a person from elective office for intoxication or upon conviction of being intoxicated. The petition alleges that Watkins appeared at an unspecified trial in Iowa District Court while under the influence of alcoholic beverage. Intoxication while on the job as a county employee is also prohibited by the Van Buren County employee manual, according to the petition.

Mary Ann Brown, Chief District Judge, on the same day the petition was filed, appointed F. Montgomery Brown as special prosecutor.

Originally, Judge Brown set October 21 at 1:00 p.m. as the date and time for the hearing on the plaintiff’s petition.

However, F. Montgomery Brown filed a motion to reschedule the hearing date. It alleges that Watkins was personally served on September 30, 2016, and that pursuant to Iowa Code, upon the filing of the petition the hearing shall be held not less than 10 days nor more than 20 days after completed service of the notice on the defendant.

“The hearing is currently scheduled to commence 21 days after completed service,” according to F. Montgomery Brown. The plaintiff asked the court to reschedule the hearing for removal to October 17, 18 or 19.

At press time, the court had not responded to the motion and there was no mention of where the hearing would be held.

At the hearing, both sides would be able to present their case before the judge.

The Van Buren County Register contacted Watkins for comment. Watkins returned the call, but stated “I am declining comment at this time.”

The VBC Register also contacted F. Montgomery Brown Monday morning, October 3, and spoke to a female in his law office and requested comment. Brown had not returned the call as of Monday afternoon.

Watkins was elected to Van Buren County Attorney in November of 2014 and began his term January 1, 2015. His present term expires January 1, 2019.

Over the past year, Van Buren County Supervisors have been dealing with various issues at the county attorney’s office, ranging from furniture, salaries, and staffing.

At a meeting last month, supervisors asked Watkins about an administrative assistant who had resigned in August and if there was a resignation. On September 26, Watkins presented to supervisors the resignation of the employee that was effective August 9.

During discussion on staffing on September 12, supervisors mentioned to Watkins their preference on having his administrative assistant to move their office to the courthouse. Watkins declined.  The office for the county attorney’s administrative assistant is in Watkin’s office on Highway 1 in Keosauqua.

Supervisors have held at least two closed meetings recently.

On August 29, supervisors held a 37 minute closed meeting, under Iowa code that allows closed meetings to meet with counsel when litigation is imminent.

On September 19, supervisors held a closed meeting “to be held with counsel to discuss matters concerning imminent litigation.”

There was no indication of exactly what those meetings were about, but the August 29 closed meeting involved Jon Swanson, counsel for Heartland Insurance Risk Pool. After returning from that meeting, supervisors approved a motion “to allow counsel for Heartland Insurance Risk Pool to proceed as discussed in closed session.”

During the September 26 regular meeting, the following were present: Dar Chapman, Virginia Barchman, Chris Kauffman and Watkins.

Barchman came out of retirement to accept the position of assistant county attorney in Van Buren County last year.  She worked in the Iowa Attorney General’s Office prosecuting criminal cases and retired in 2010. She and her husband Darwin Chapman moved to Van Buren County. Chapman is the former head of the Iowa DCI. Kauffman is a Van Buren County reserve officer criminalist.

At that meeting, Watkins updated the board on office staffing and presented the resignation of the county attorney administrative assistant.

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