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Sexual Harassing Iowa County Attorney Allowed to Keep His Job

An Iowa county attorney was removed from office by a federal district judge in January 2017 for sexual harassment. Abraham Watkins was accused of egregious sexual harassment. He was said to have: come to work in only his boxer briefs; shared nude photos of his wife; told an employee that her “boobs” were “distracting him;” commented inappropriately about an employee’s bras and “broke vagina;” and complained about his wife not wanting to have sex with him.
An all-male panel of Iowa Supreme Court justices decided Mr. Watkins should keep his job. They concluded that the allegations did not rise to the level of misconduct that would result in such a “drastic” and “penal” remedy of removing an elected official from office. Iowa law permits the removal of elected officials in cases of willful or habitual neglect, willful misconduct, corruption, extortion, felony conviction, intoxication and campaign finance violations. The opinion stated that although the state has proven “Mr. Watkins has engaged in misconduct or maladministration by regularly committing sexual harassment, the majority was not persuaded that he had acted ‘with a bad or evil purpose.’” The court reached this conclusion in part because it considered some of his comments to have been made in the context of a personal relationship with an employee who reported to him.
Three of the 11 justices strongly disagreed, finding the decision part of a “bygone era of law that shielded men who knew better at the expense of their female employees.” The Iowa Gazette notes that few remedies are available to women subjected to harassment by Iowan elected officials, particularly because state Republicans have redacted the names of sexual harassment perpetrators from their reports, making it difficult for voters to remove them from office.