The Daily Iowan

Laursen: Iowa prosecutor able to continue his duties despite sexual-harassment claims

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In September 2016, a petition filed by the Van Buren County Board of Supervisors asked that the county attorney, Abraham Watkins, be removed from his elected position.

The petition included explanations of several different instances in which Watkins’ behavior was allegedly inappropriate, unethical, and at times even illegal. Watkins has been accused of asking employees about their sexual health, commenting on employee’s breasts, and practicing in court while under the influence of alcohol. In addition to the original petition, special prosecutor F. Montgomery Brown filed a brief that refers to Watkins as “a serial harasser.” A trial held in January 2017 removed Watkins from his position.

Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled 4-3 that Watkins should not have been removed as county attorney, and he announced soon after that he will resume the position. The Supreme Court’s ruling sets a precedent that intolerable work conduct by public employees will be tolerated.

According to the Iowa County Attorney Association Prosecutorial Standards, county attorneys “are the chief law-enforcement officials of the county” and “The primary responsibility of the prosecutor is to seek and obtain justice.” Doesn’t it seem kind of backwards that Watkins is a chief law-enforcement official?

Many might wonder why I am so certain that Watkins actually committed the alleged behavior that should have led to his permanent removal. Well, for starters, after Watkins was made aware of the investigation into his character, he responded by exiling Assistant County Attorney Virginia Barchman from their shared workspace. Barchman is one of the alleged victims of Watkins’ harassment. It is no surprise that after Watkins found out that Barchman was in on the ongoing investigation that he decided to retaliate against her.

Barchman wrote in an affidavit, “These acts of apparent retaliation will have a direct and negative bearing on the administration of justice in Van Buren County.”

Despite all of this and a 2nd District Court ruling, the Iowa Supreme Court decided 4-3 that Watkins should not have been removed from office. Justice Bruce Zager of the majority wrote, “The conduct of the county attorney, while deserving the disapproval it received from the district court, did not rise to the level of misconduct that would warrant the ‘drastic’ and ‘penal’ remedy of a court order removing an elected official from office.”

So, it is not that the majority said Watkins’ behavior didn’t occur, it was that the court did not believe the behavior warranted Watkins’ removal. This is absolutely absurd. How much more do people have to do to lose elected positions? Apparently, consistent sexual harassment, intoxication while appearing at trial, and retaliation are not enough for the all-male Supreme Court to deem someone unfit to be the chief law official of a county.

Taxpayers should feel completely disgusted that their taxes are now going toward Watkins’ $47,931 salary. It is amazing that the high court decided that Watkins’ conduct is not enough to remove him from his elected position. Not only is this a slap in the face to victims of sexual assault, this will also be detrimental to Van Buren County. Watkins clearly is unfit to be a chief law-enforcement official. I am deeply saddened that the state Supreme Court is allowing Watkins to resume his duties, and I expect Watkins will continue his unprofessional behavior.

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About the Writer
Lucee Laursen, Opinions Editor

Lucee is currently the Opinions Editor at the DI. She has worked for the DI for three semesters. Prior to being the Opinions Editor, she was a columnist in the Opinions section. Lucee began her position as opinions editor in the summer of 2018.

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