During an emergency meeting this week, the Van Buren County Board appointed Jefferson County Attorney Tim Dille as acting county attorney. It appears Dille’s appointment will be short-lived per a recent ruling by the Iowa Supreme Court.
County Board Chairman Mark Meek said Dille will replace Virginia Barchman, who, along with Assistant County Attorney Terri Quartucci, resigned on June 29. Meek said they did not provide a reason for stepping down in their resignation letters, which the county board is scheduled to act upon on July 9.
June 29 is the same day the Iowa Supreme Court released its opinion in the case of Abraham Watkins.
Watkins was elected Van Buren County Attorney in November 2014. He was roughly two years into his first term in office when the county board filed a petition to remove him from office for sexual harassment and creating a hostile work environment.
Among the accusations against him:
- Talking about a female employee’s breasts
- Making offensive comments
- Showing employees photos of his wife wearing no clothes
- Wearing nothing below the waist but underwear while working around female county employees
Watkins repeatedly denied the allegations against him during a civil trial in late 2016. But a District Court Judge ruled in January 2017 that the state proved that Watkins willfully engaged in sexual harassment.
Judge James Drew wrote at the time that actions speak louder than words and that Watkins’ actions were clearly intentional. Drew also said Watkins violated the trust of the citizens who elected him.
A couple weeks after the ruling, the Van Buren County Board appointed Barchman to replace Watkins. A few months later, Quartucci was hired as Assistant County Attorney.
Barchman, a former assistant Iowa attorney general for more than 20 years, had been serving as an assistant county attorney under Watkins. She testified during Watkins’ civil trial, supporting some of the allegations against him and offering her own examples of improper conduct.
Watkins appealed his removal from office to the Iowa Supreme Court, which heard the case in September 2017.
His attorney argued that the Van Buren County Board did not follow proper procedures in seeking his removal from office and that the work environment was unique because Watkins’ public office and private law firm were both in his home.
The state argued that Watkins was unfit to serve due to the multiple allegations of sexual harassment and the creation of a hostile work environment.
In the 4-3 opinion issued June 29, Justice Bruce Zager wrote:
“For the reasons set forth herein, we conclude that 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. We reverse the judgement of the district court and vacate the order removing the defendant from the office of Van Buren County Attorney.”
Zager also wrote:
“Based on our close review of the entire record, we are not persuaded that Watkins acted ‘with a bad or evil purpose, contrary to known duty,’ which requires more than a showing that Watkins acted intentionally. Nor are we persuaded that he committed many of the charged acts within the scope of his official responsibilities as the county attorney.
“The state failed to meet the high burden required to show ‘by clear, convincing, satisfactory evidence’ that Watkins intended to commit willful misconduct or maladministration in office based on the record… While we agree that Watkins’ conduct was voluntary, thoughtless and offensive, the evidence does not show that he conducted himself in such a way that it was done willfully with an evil purpose.”
The court was quite split on the decision.
- Justices Thomas Waterman and Edward Mansfield agreed with Zager’s opinion
- Justice Brent Appel agreed that Watkins should be reinstated, but filed his own opinion
- Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote a dissenting opinion that Justice Daryl Hecht joined
- Justice David Wiggins wrote his own dissenting opinion
The Van Buren County Board says it appointed Dille to the post because of several criminal cases that are set to be prosecuted in mid-July. Dille does not know how long his services will be needed because there are still a few legal hurdles that must be cleared before Watkins could be reinstated, if he chooses to be reinstated.