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Van Buren County Prosecutor Removed From Office for Misconduct

Jan 5, 2017

Abraham Watkins is no longer the County Attorney in Van Buren County. District court Judge James Drew this week ordered Watkins’ removal from office over multiple allegations of sexual harassment.

“During his tenure as county attorney, Mr. Watkins has engaged in a pattern of conduct that is unacceptable by any reasonable standard. Many people, probably most, would consider much of his behavior to be outrageous or even shocking. The fact that Mr. Watkins is an attorney trained in the law makes his behavior all the more troublesome," Drew said in his ruling.

Watkins began practicing law in Keosauqua in 2013. In Sept. 2014, he hired Jasmin Wallingford to work for him in his office, which was located in his home.

Wallingford continued to work for Watkins after he was elected county attorney in Nov. 2014. The county position is part-time, which allowed Watkins to maintain his private practice.

Wallingford resigned in August 2016, citing Watkins' behavior. One month later, the Van Buren County Board filed a petition to have Watkins removed from office.

Drew listed many of the examples of sexual harassment experienced by Wallingford during her two years on the job in his ruling. Among them:

  • “Mr. Watkins regularly had Ms. Wallingford perform various personal tasks during work hours. Those tasks included purchasing liquor, driving him to purchase liquor, making doctor appointments, filling prescriptions, picking up lunch and other personal chores.”
  • “On two occasions, while Ms. Wallingford was present, Mr. Watkins entered the work area wearing boxer briefs. On one of those occasions, he walked over and stood next to Ms. Wallingford while she was working at her desk.”
  • “On another occasion, the Watkins had Ms. Wallingford stay for dinner. During the evening, Mr. Watkins showed Ms. Wallingford two pictures of his wife. One depicted her from behind, naked below the waist, and the other was a photograph of her vaginal area.”
  • “On another occasion, Mr. Watkins told Mr. Wallingford that her ‘boobs were distracting him.’”
  • “On another occasion, Mr. Watkins commented to Ms. Wallingford about the breasts of a county employee. He wondered if she wore a padded bra or if they were ‘really that big.’”
  • “Mr. Watkins complained to Ms. Wallingford that his wife ‘never wanted to have sex.’ He stated that he wished he had a wife who wanted to have sex all the time.”
  • “In the fall of 2015, Mr. Wallingford was having some health issues. Mr. Watkins asked her if ‘her vagina was still broke.’”

Several other people testified during the civil trial of their interactions with Watkins, including Asst. Van Buren County Attorney Virginia Barchman. She said Watkins walked into the work area in his underwear and he showed her a nude photo of his wife.

Judge Drew said the state’s witnesses, including Barchman and Wallingford, were credible as their testimony was consistent with the other witnesses.

“The court did not see or hear anything from any of the state’s witnesses that would indicate they were fabricating their testimony,” said Drew in his ruling. He went on to state that the case had been made that Watkins willingly engaged in misconduct or maladministration by regularly committing sexual harassment.

“It is said that ‘actions speak louder than words,’” wrote Drew. “Mr. Watkins’ inappropriate conduct was pervasive and existed over a significant period of time, thereby negating any claim of mistake or an isolated lapse in judgment. His actions were clearly intentional. As a lawyer, he knew better but continued to subject his two young female employees to sexually-related banter and in some instances, images, that have no place in a work setting.”

“The court does not take removal of an elected official lightly. The remedy is deemed drastic for good reason. Mr. Watkins has created a potential liability for the county and in light of his history, there is little reason to believe he would not continue to act in the same manner going forward. Citizens have the right to trust that their elected officials will not engage in certain types of behaviors in the workplace. Mr. Watkins has repeatedly violated that trust. In light of his pattern of behavior, it is appropriate that he be removed from office.”

The county made several other claims against Watkins regarding a conflict of interest in cases and possible intoxication while at work. Drew acknowledged them in his ruling, but said they did not rise to the level of the sexual harassment claims.

Jon Finney, Van Buren County Attorney, said Thursday afternoon that most of the county-owned items had been removed from Watkins’ home. He said the county board could decide Monday whether to appoint a replacement for Watkins or hold a special election to fill the post.