Is sexual harassment grounds for removing an elected official from office?

By: Rox Laird on September 27th, 2017

Abraham Watkins was elected Van Buren County Attorney and took office on Jan. 1, 2015. Two years and two days later, a Van Buren County judge ruled that Watkins was guilty of maladministration of office for sexual harassment of a county employee and ordered him removed from office.

Watkins’ removal was initiated by the Van Buren County Board of Supervisors after they became aware of the sexual harassment allegations. Following an investigation by Thomas H. Miller, a former assistant Attorney General, the board appointed Des Moines attorney F. Montgomery Brown as acting county attorney to prosecute the removal proceedings in District Court.

Removal of an elected official from office is an extraordinary act, but Watkins argues in an appeal to the Iowa Supreme Court that his removal was contrary to law in the way it was executed by the Van Buren County Board of Supervisors.

Watkins asserts two primary arguments: First, while he concedes his sexually explicit behavior toward a female employee in the county attorney’s office may have been uncouth, he argues the State did not prove that he acted with the “evil, corrupt intent” that is necessary in a removal action. Second, he argues that the Board of Supervisors brought in a “hired gun” to initiate the removal proceedings contrary to state law.

In oral arguments heard in the case last week, some justices also questioned whether sexual harassment fits the definition of maladministration and whether the removal process was initiated correctly.

The record is replete with testimony regarding Watkins’ sexually explicit language and behavior in the county attorney’s office, which a female employee saw as harassment and creating a hostile work environment. Among other things, Watkins asked the woman about her vagina, complained that her breasts were distracting, showed her nude photos of his wife, discussed his marital sex life and on more than one occasion appeared in the office in boxer briefs or silky pajama bottoms revealing his anatomy.

“There is sort of an aroma of this case that bothers me,” Justice Edward Mansfield said at one point during the oral argument. But, he wondered, is civil liability for sexual harassment enough to justify removal from office? Or is criminal conduct needed?

Justice David Wiggins, too, wondered whether a hostile work environment ever be grounds for removal.

Des Moines attorney Alfredo Parrish, who represented Watkins in the appeal, argues that more is needed.

“To warrant removal,” Parrish argues in a brief filed with the Supreme Court, “the State must prove Watkins acted with an evil and corrupt motive.” He quoted earlier decisions in which the Court has said that the evidence must “show a breach of duty committed knowingly and with a purpose to do wrong,” and the conduct may be “voluntary, thoughtless, or even reckless, yet not necessarily willful.”

Parrish played down the sexual harassment allegations as jokes or meaningless comments made in passing that should be seen in the context of a working in a law office on the first floor of the Watkins’ home shared by the family’s kitchen and one of two bathrooms.

Moreover, he argued in the brief, applying the legal standard of sexual harassment used in lawyer-discipline cases to the removal of public officials “would open the floodgates to removal actions, sweeping in untold numbers of elected officials guilty of nothing more than a crude sense of humor.”

Jeffrey Thompson, solicitor general of Iowa who argued on behalf of the State, said Watkins’ treatment of female employees “rendered him unworthy to be county attorney.”

Justice David Wiggins, though, wondered who makes that decision – a judge, the court or the public? “Why not wait for the next election?”

Thompson said the law providing for the removal of appointed or elected officials was put in place because sometimes the political process doesn’t work.

Justice Thomas Waterman raised a question about how the removal process is initiated: “Don’t we have a threshold question: Who was authorized to initiate the removal process?”

Justice Bruce Zager agreed: “It just seems absurd to me,” he said, that the Board of Supervisors would hire an outside attorney and direct him to file a petition for removal.

Watkins argues that was contrary to state law: The Iowa Code, in Chapter 66, says the removal of a county attorney may be initiated by (1) the Attorney General, (2) five electors, or (3) an attorney appointed by a district judge.

“Chapter 66 contemplates prosecutors or voters exercising their independent judgment as to the propriety of official acts,” Watkins argues. “It does not contemplate, nor does it allow, the Board of Supervisors to retain a hired gun (exercising no independent judgment) to do its bidding.”

Thompson said the supervisors had authority under Chapter 331.754 of the Iowa Code to appoint an acting county attorney because Watkins was conflicted in the matter of his own removal.

In his concluding remarks at oral argument, Parrish urged the justices to beware of setting a precedent in this case: Recognizing civil workplace harassment as grounds for removal from elective office, he said, would be not just a “slippery slope” for public officials, “but a cliff.”

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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