Court: ‘Egregious’ actions not enough for attorney’s removal
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Despite acknowledging a county prosecutor’s behavior was “morally reprehensible” and “egregious,” the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that he should be reinstated, saying his actions didn’t reach the threshold to remove an elected official.
The court, in a 4-3 decision, found Abraham Watkins shouldn’t have been removed as Van Buren County attorney in January 2017 following allegations of sexual harassment. He was accused of commenting on an employee’s breasts, repeatedly appearing in underwear in his home office and displaying nude photos of his wife, among other allegations.
“While not excusing Watkins’s egregious conduct, the record does not establish that Watkins was guilty of grave misconduct, demonstrated flagrant incompetence, or was otherwise unfit to perform his duties as county attorney,” Justice Bruce Zager wrote for the majority.
Zager said there’s a high bar to remove elected officials that goes beyond “crude, outrageous, or even shocking behavior by itself,” given the potential for partisan abuse should the court not show considerable restraint.
Justice David Wiggins, in a dissent, rebuked the all-male court for trivializing harassment. He said the court diluted Watkin’s behavior because the work environment included “joking, teasing, and sarcastic remarks.”
“We must stop making excuses,” Wiggins wrote. “Enough is enough. Sexual harassment is a real problem affecting real individuals.”
In a separate dissent, Chief Justice Mark Cady said, “Sexual harassment will not end until it is seen as serious enough to end.”
Justice Brent Appel said it was a “close case,” writing in a concurring opinion that he largely agreed with Cady’s view on harassment. But he said the precedent for removing elected officials is “stringent” and Watkins, who he said wasn’t vindicated, prevailed by “the narrowest of margins.”
Watkins attorney, Alfredo Parrish, said Watkins has learned from the experience. He said they’re “thrilled” with the outcome, which acknowledged Watkins behavior took place in a home office where personal relationships existed alongside professional associations.
“He didn’t hide the fact that he made some mistakes,” Parrish said. “We don’t just discard people when they make mistakes.
The state attorney general’s office declined to comment.
Mark Meek, who chairs the Van Buren County Board of Supervisors in southeast Iowa, said the county is willing to work with Watkins.
“We don’t have any choice — it’s the law,” Meek said. “Naturally, we disagreed with the findings of the Supreme Court, but we’ll live with it.”
Watkins was elected county attorney as an independent in 2014. His term ran through 2018. A deputy county attorney, who was one of two accusers, was named interim county attorney after Watkins’ ouster. She isn’t running for election. Republican Craig Miller, a former Van Buren County attorney, is the only declared candidate for the part-time position, but other candidates can enter the race during an August filing period.
Parrish said Watkins plans to decide soon whether he wants to resume serving as county attorney. Meek said the county has already received resignations from the interim and assistant county attorneys in preparation for Watkins’ return.