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State v. Watkins

Supreme Court of Iowa

June 29, 2018

STATE OF IOWA, Appellee,
v.
ABRAHAM K. WATKINS, Appellant.

          Appeal from the Iowa District Court for Van Buren County, James M. Drew, Judge.

         The defendant challenges his removal from office as the Van Buren County Attorney after the district court found he committed willful misconduct or maladministration in office.

          Alfredo Parrish, Gina Messamer, and John Maschman of Parrish Kruidenier Dunn Boles Gribble Gentry Brown & Bergmann L.L.P., Des Moines, for appellant.

          Thomas J. Miller, Attorney General, Jeffrey S. Thompson, Solicitor General, and Julie S. Kim, Assistant Attorney General, for appellee.

          F. Montgomery Brown of F.M. Brown Law Firm, P.L.L.C., West Des Moines, Special Prosecutor, for appellee.

          ZAGER, Justice.

         An attorney removed from his elected position as Van Buren County Attorney challenges the district court order for his removal. Chapter 66 of the Iowa Code authorizes a district court to remove "[a]ny appointive or elective officer, except such as may be removed only by impeachment, holding any public office in the state or in any division or municipality thereof" in certain circumstances. Iowa Code § 66.1A (2015). We must now decide whether an elected county attorney was properly removed under this statute for sexual harassment. 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. See State v. Callaway, 268 N.W.2d 841, 842 (Iowa 1978) (using these terms to characterize chapter 66). We reverse the judgment of the district court and vacate the order removing the defendant from the office of Van Buren County Attorney. We remand the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

         I. Facts and Procedural Background.

         In May 2013, Abraham Watkins was sworn into the Iowa bar and subsequently opened a solo practice in Keosauqua, Iowa. Watkins operated his law practice out of an office located on the first floor or main level of the two-story home he shared with his family. Watkins and his family mostly lived upstairs. However, the home's kitchen, laundry room, and one of the two bathrooms are located on the main level, adjacent to the office area. Watkins's wife, Renee Watkins, worked closely with her husband in the law office as the office manager for his private practice. In September 2014, Watkins hired twenty-year-old Jasmin Wallingford as his legal assistant. Two months later, Watkins was elected as the Van Buren County Attorney after running as an independent, and he assumed office on January 1, 2015.

         Following Watkins's election as the Van Buren County Attorney, which is a part-time position, Renee began to split her time between serving as the office manager for her husband's private practice and the victim coordinator for the county attorney's office. Additionally, Wallingford began working part-time for Watkins in the county attorney's office, as well as part-time for him in his private law office.[1] Wallingford became close to the Watkins family, even labeling herself an "honorary family member." Wallingford and the Watkins family shared personal details of their lives with each other. During this time, Wallingford assisted Watkins and Renee with their young daughters and socialized with them outside of the office. These social events included out-of-town trips Wallingford took with the family in which they visited waterparks and stayed in hotels together.

         Based on a recommendation from Chris Kauffman, a friend of Watkins, Watkins hired Virginia Barchman as a part-time assistant county attorney in April 2015. At the time, Barchman had been retired for five years after a twenty-four-year career as an attorney with the Iowa Attorney General's Office's Area Prosecutions Division. Barchman began working in the same first-floor office area shared by Watkins, Renee, and Wallingford, though tensions arose between Watkins and Barchman not long after Barchman's hiring. The pair engaged in a number of intense arguments that made it difficult for them to work together on cases.

         Disagreements between Watkins and Barchman continued to escalate in the spring of 2016. Wallingford also began to look for other employment beginning in the spring of 2016. After a domestic-abuse trial that was held in the summer of 2016, Barchman expressed her frustrations with Watkins by criticizing his performance during the trial and accusing him of "smelling like booze."[2] In August, Barchman obtained permission from the Van Buren County Board of Supervisors (Board) to work in a different office space in the Van Buren County courthouse due to issues she had with the noise in Watkins's office and Watkins himself. She labeled this new workspace an "Abe-free zone." Watkins soon began seeking job applications for an assistant county attorney, which Barchman interpreted to mean Watkins was looking to replace her.

         Although Watkins disputed that he had been drinking during the trial, he clearly had an issue with alcohol abuse outside the workplace. Renee grew tired of Watkins's drinking habits, and the couple would constantly argue about their marital issues in the office. Finally, on August 5, Renee and the Watkinses' children left the home to visit Renee's family in North Carolina because Renee was exasperated with Watkins's drinking. As a result, Watkins contacted Kauffman, who helped Watkins receive medical care for his drinking issues. Watkins also contacted and met with Hugh Grady from the Iowa Lawyers Assistance Program. Grady recommended that Watkins immediately stop drinking, visit a counselor, attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and maintain regular contact with him. Watkins took the necessary steps to follow through with these recommendations, beginning with his sobriety. Throughout these personal struggles during the summer of 2016, both Watkins and Renee confided in Wallingford for support.

         On August 9, Wallingford resigned from her positions with Watkins. Wallingford stated in her resignation letter, "I have learned many things in my time here, including what makes a hostile work environment." As her reason for leaving, she wrote, "Due to aberrant behavior and a hostile work environment, I no longer can continue my position and feel confident about coming into work." Kauffman met with Wallingford around the time of her resignation and encouraged her to write down all of her complaints regarding Watkins. Wallingford prepared her list in the week following her resignation. Barchman turned over Wallingford's resignation letter to John Finney, the Van Buren County Auditor, and contacted her former colleague Scott Brown in the Iowa Attorney General's Office about the resignation letter and Wallingford's complaints with Watkins.

         Wallingford's list totaled approximately fifty-five complaints about her work with Watkins over the previous two years. The overwhelming majority of her complaints involved her frustration with the menial work tasks she was given and the way they made her feel inferior to Watkins. These complaints included "criticizing me in front of customers," "constant yelling between him [and] Renee," "the importance of him [and] not us," "my #1 job was to be there to answer the phone," and "[he] very often expected me to figure [work] out then remind me I didn't go to law school." While the majority of Wallingford's complaints dealt with work assignments and the lack of respect she felt she received, several of the complaints involved conduct potentially amounting to sexual harassment.

         Wallingford reported that twice Watkins came down the stairs and entered the office area to get coffee while wearing only athletic shorts or boxer briefs in the early morning. On one of those occasions, Wallingford laughed and Watkins walked over to her desk. However, he did not stay long. According to Wallingford, neither of these occurrences happened within six months of the filing of the petition for removal.

         On another occasion, Watkins showed Wallingford two photographs of his naked wife and a video Watkins made of an incident where his wife accidentally squirted breast milk in Wallingford's car. The display of the photographs and the video occurred after work hours in the family kitchen while the family and Wallingford were having dinner together. Renee immediately objected to Watkins's display of the photographs, and the incident in the family kitchen ended upon her objection. Although the timing of this incident is unclear, it did not occur within six months of the filing of the petition for removal.

         Additionally, Watkins made several sexual comments to Wallingford. Some of these occurred in the workplace. On one occasion, Watkins told Wallingford that her "boobs [were] distracting him." On another occasion, after seeing a particular woman, Watkins told Wallingford, "Man, I wouldn't want to see her naked." Watkins also complained to Wallingford that his wife did not want to have sex and said he wished he had a wife who wanted to have sex with him all the time. On another occasion, Watkins made an inappropriate sexual pun about the name of a cleaning product in the presence of Wallingford and two women custodians. Wallingford took this as a poor attempt at humor, and she knew that the other women did not understand it.

         At a birthday party for one of his daughters, which took place in a park on a Saturday, Watkins commented to Kauffman about the breasts of a courthouse employee. The following Monday, Watkins attempted to bring up the subject again in front of Renee and Wallingford. Renee cut him off and told Watkins she did not want to hear about it.

         On a different occasion, Wallingford was speaking with Renee about Wallingford's visit to a gynecologist. Watkins overheard this conversation and began to pester Wallingford about what was wrong with her, at which point Renee made a comment along the lines that Wallingford had a "broken vagina." Watkins later asked Wallingford on another occasion whether "her vagina was still broke." Finally, after Renee left the family home with their daughters on August 5, Watkins contacted Wallingford by telephone on Sunday night. During the course of a long and wide-ranging discussion, Watkins made the comment that he was glad he had kept nude photographs of his old girlfriends.

         As noted above, Wallingford submitted her letter of resignation on August 9. Wallingford subsequently attempted to retract her resignation after Barchman informed her that she could work with Barchman from an office in the old courthouse. However, Wallingford was not rehired. She soon found employment with the Van Buren County Sheriff's Office.

         Barchman also witnessed some of the incidents described above. On one occasion, Barchman saw what she believed to be Watkins appearing downstairs in his underwear. She made her objections to his behavior clear to Watkins, and there is no indication that this ever happened again in her presence. Further, Watkins used a crude sexual term as a nickname for a particular female attorney in Barchman's presence. She told Watkins that this was offensive to her, and she never heard him use the expression again.

         Watkins also asked Wallingford if her "vagina was still broke" on one occasion when Barchman was present. Moreover, Barchman saw a photograph of Watkins's wife while she was pregnant, nude, and covered in blue paint on Watkins's computer screen by accident when she went to his office to discuss something with him.

         Barchman could not recall hearing Watkins ever make a single "come-on" line to any female employee or client. Her initial complaints in July 2016 were about Watkins's performance during the aforementioned domestic-abuse trial. Her concerns at the time related to Watkins's alleged drinking during the trial.

         In mid-August, Barchman forwarded Wallingford's letter of resignation to Jon Swanson, the attorney for Van Buren County. Swanson then notified the Board, which took steps to investigate the allegations against Watkins. The Board held two closed sessions to discuss the allegations and how to handle them. After the first closed session, the Board retained attorney Thomas H. Miller at the recommendation of Swanson to conduct a formal investigation and advise the Board on the best course of action.

         Miller is a former Iowa Assistant Attorney General who has experience handling public-official misconduct. Miller was also Barchman's supervisor when the two worked in the Iowa Attorney General's Office. During his investigation, Miller spoke to a number of individuals in Van Buren County including Barchman, Wallingford, Kauffman, and the Van Buren County Sheriff. Miller never spoke with Watkins or Renee as part of his investigation. Further, Barchman incorrectly reported to Swanson and Miller that Watkins refused to cooperate with alcohol treatment recommendations made by Grady.

         At the second closed session, Miller and the Board discussed the results of his investigation. During this discussion, Miller told the Board about possible ways to initiate removal proceedings of Watkins under Iowa Code section 66.3. One route included bringing the removal petition by five registered voters of the county as specifically provided for in section 66.3(3). Despite the existence of this method to initiate the proceedings, Miller advised the Board that through "a little bit of legal wrangling," the Board could initiate the removal proceedings by appointing an acting county attorney under Iowa Code section 331.754(4) and the acting county attorney would then be authorized to initiate the action to remove the elected county attorney. The Board decided to proceed on this basis.

         For reasons that are not apparent from this record, Miller did not contact the Iowa Attorney General's Office to have it initiate the removal action as specifically authorized by Iowa Code section 66.3(1). This is the method most often used in removal actions. Rather, upon Miller's recommendation, the Board retained attorney F. Montgomery Brown as acting county attorney and authorized him to initiate the removal action utilizing the procedure outlined above.

         After Brown met with Watkins and learned he would not resign voluntarily, Brown filed the petition to remove Watkins from office pursuant to Iowa Code sections 66.11 and 331.754(4) on September 29. Once Brown filed the removal proceedings, the district court appointed him to appear on the State's behalf and prosecute Watkins's removal proceedings pursuant to Iowa Code section 66.12.

         In its final amended petition, the State sought removal of Watkins on five separate grounds. Four involved allegations that Watkins engaged in "willful misconduct or maladministration in office" in violation of Iowa Code section 66.1A(2) by (1) creating a "hostile work environment" that included sexual harassment, (2) supplying a minor with alcohol in violation of Iowa Code sections 123.47(1) and 123.47(2)(a), (3) retaliation, and (4) accepting three private-practice cases that created conflicts of interest with his position as county attorney. The petition also sought Watkins's removal on the ground that he had been intoxicated in violation of Iowa Code section 66.1A(6).

         Watkins filed a motion to dismiss the removal petition. The motion urged that the Board did not have the power to initiate a removal action under Iowa Code section 66.3, nor could the Board empower Brown to prosecute the action under Iowa Code section 331.754(4). Additionally, Watkins claimed a breach of contract by the county. Watkins alleged his signature on the Van Buren County Employee Handbook and consideration in the form of legal services and compliance with the county's rules created a binding contract. Watkins further claimed the county breached this contract when it did not "promptly name an impartial investigator" as provided for in the handbook. Watkins cited Miller's former working relationship and friendship with Barchman. Moreover, Watkins argued the Board violated the handbook's employment policy of progressive discipline by initiating termination before taking other, less drastic measures.

         On October 28, the district court denied Watkins's motion to dismiss. The district court ruled the Board had the authority to appoint an attorney under Iowa Code section 331.754(4) to act as county attorney when the elected county attorney had a conflict of interest. The district court ruled that Watkins had an "obvious" conflict of interest in this civil proceeding. The district court reasoned that Brown, as the lawfully appointed acting county attorney on the matter, had the same authority over the matter for which he was appointed under Iowa Code section 331.754(4) as the elected county attorney. Thus, the district court found that Brown was considered a county attorney for purposes of Iowa Code section 66.3(5).

         Trial on the petition for removal commenced on October 31 and continued sporadically over the next several months with final submission of evidence occurring on December 22. On January 3, 2017, the district court issued its Order for Removal from Office. The district court ordered Watkins's removal from the office of Van Buren County Attorney solely based on the sexual-harassment claim. In reaching its decision, the district court found a "significant contrast between the recollections of the State's witnesses versus the recollections of Mr. Watkins; his wife; and current employee, Ms. Richardson." The district court found the State's witnesses more credible and considered their testimony to be truthful because nothing indicated the witnesses fabricated their testimony or had a substantial personal interest in the outcome in comparison to Watkins's witnesses, who, the district court noted, were not eager to testify.

         In addition to the aforementioned complaints from Wallingford and Barchman, the district court also took into account testimony from Tayt Waibel and Kauffman. The district court found the testimony of Waibel, who had worked for Watkins in his private law office, to be truthful. Her testimony recounted inappropriate sexually charged remarks made by Watkins. One of those comments was directed at Waibel personally and occurred on a weekend after Watkins was served with removal papers. After making the inappropriate statement, Watkins acknowledged, "This is probably why I'm in trouble for sexual harassment." Moreover, the district court relied on testimony from Kauffman, who testified that Watkins liked to talk about sex, frequently offered to show him naked pictures of his wife, and once commented on the breasts of a courthouse employee.

         In its decision to remove Watkins from office, the district court reasoned,

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 conduct 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. Iowa's Rules of Professional Conduct for attorneys recognize that lawyers holding public office assume legal responsibilities going beyond those of other citizens. A lawyer's abuse of public office can suggest an inability to fulfill the professional role of a lawyer. I.R.P.C. 32:8.4 Comment 5.
The State has proven that Mr. Watkins has engaged in misconduct or maladministration by regularly committing sexual harassment. The bigger question is whether his conduct was willful, which requires proof that he acted intentionally with a purpose to do wrong. . . .
. . . Mr. Watkins's inappropriate conduct was pervasive and existed over a significant period of time thereby negating any claim of mistake or an isolated lapse of 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 the work setting. This is especially true for a county attorney's office. Given the extent and stunning nature of his conduct one can, and in the Court's opinion must, infer that he was acting with a bad or evil purpose. Therefore, the State has established that his conduct was willful.

         The State withdrew its retaliation claim at closing, conceding that it failed to prove Watkins retaliated against Barchman. The district court did not further address the retaliation allegation or the State's claim that Watkins supplied a minor with alcohol in violation of Iowa Code sections 123.47(2)(a) and 123.47(5). Additionally, the court made no findings of fact regarding the allegations that Watkins committed willful misconduct or maladministration in office based on the conflicts-of-interest claim against him, finding instead that none of the allegations justified Watkins's removal. The district court also found insufficient evidence to establish the State's intoxication allegation, noting that "substantial evidence," including the testimony of the presiding judge at the trial, established that Watkins was not intoxicated in court.[3] The district court also did not make any findings regarding the Board's alleged breach of the handbook or the conflicts of the Board members who helped initiate the removal proceedings. Additional facts will be included within our following analysis. Watkins timely filed an appeal, which we retained.

         II. Standard of Review.

         Our standard of review for rulings on questions of statutory interpretation is for correction of errors at law. State v. Iowa Dist. Ct., 889 N.W.2d 467, 470 (Iowa 2017). In removal proceedings, the State bears the burden of proof to establish that the public official committed the charged acts of misconduct or maladministration in office with "willful intent to do wrong [and] an evil purpose upon the part of the accused, . . . by clear, convincing, satisfactory evidence." State ex rel. Crowder v. Smith, 232 Iowa 254, 255, 4 N.W.2d 267, 268 (1942). This standard requires the State to establish the facts "by more than a preponderance of evidence, but something less than establishing a factual situation beyond a reasonable doubt." State v. Bartz, 224 N.W.2d 632, 638 (Iowa 1974).

         In determining whether the State has met this burden, we review the evidence submitted in a removal proceeding de novo. Callaway, 268 N.W.2d at 842.

There is essentially but one question before us as triers [d]e novo on this appeal: Does the record compiled below contain sufficient evidence of misconduct on the part of [the] defendant[ ] . . . as [an] elected public official[ ] to necessitate [his] removal from office under the provisions of Chapter 66.

Bartz, 224 N.W.2d at 634. To answer this question, we give the trial court's findings weight "but nonetheless assume the responsibility of reviewing the entire record in determining the case anew on appeal." Id.

         III. Analysis.

         Watkins presents a number of issues on appeal. First, Watkins challenges the manner in which the removal action was initiated. Second, Watkins disputes the district court's determination that his conduct amounted to willful misconduct or maladministration in office. See Iowa Code § 66.1A(2). Third, Watkins contends the district court should have dismissed the removal action because Van Buren County did not retain an impartial investigator to investigate the allegations of sexual harassment as promised in the employee handbook. Fourth, he asserts the district court should have dismissed the removal action because it was tainted by a conflict of interest. Fifth, Watkins claims the district court should have dismissed the removal action because the Board failed to implement the progressive disciplinary procedures set forth in the handbook before initiating the removal process. Finally, Watkins argues he is entitled to attorney's fees on the dismissed grounds for removal.

         A. The Initiation of Removal Proceedings.

         Watkins contends the district court erred when it denied his motion to dismiss the removal action against him because the Board unlawfully initiated the removal proceedings. He maintains that the Board could not empower an acting county attorney appointed under Iowa Code section 331.754(4) to initiate removal proceedings because only the elected county attorney or attorney general may initiate removal proceedings as the sole complainant under Iowa Code section 66.3. Watkins also argues allowing the Board to appoint an acting county attorney to prosecute the removal proceedings under section 331.754(4) would render the special-prosecutor provision of section 66.12 superfluous. We begin our analysis by reviewing the relevant statutes regarding removal and the appointment of an acting county attorney.

         Iowa Code section 331.754(4) provides, "The board may appoint an attorney to act as county attorney in a civil proceeding if the county attorney and all assistant county attorneys are disqualified because of a conflict of interest from performing duties and conducting official business." Iowa Code § 331.754(4). Iowa Code section 66.3 is specific to removal and states the following:

The petition for removal may be filed:
1. By the attorney general in all cases.
2. As to state officers, by not fewer than twenty-five electors of the state.
3. As to any other officer, by five registered voters of the district, county, or municipality where the duties of the office are to be performed.
4. As to district officers, by the county attorney of any county in the district.
5. As to all county and municipal officers, by the county attorney of the county where the duties of the office are to be performed.

Id. § 66.3. Finally, Iowa Code section 66.12 states, "When the proceeding is brought to remove the county attorney, the court may appoint an attorney to appear in behalf of the state and prosecute such proceedings." Id. § 66.12.

         Nothing in Iowa Code section 66.3 distinguishes between elected and acting county attorneys. "When a proposed interpretation of a statute would require the court to 'read something into the law that is not apparent from the words chosen by the legislature,' the court will reject it." State v. Iowa Dist. Ct., 730 N.W.2d 677, 679 (Iowa 2007) (quoting State v. Guzman-Juarez, 591 N.W.2d 1, 2 (Iowa 1999)). Still, incorporating section 331.754(4) into section 66.3 could potentially allow a county board of supervisors to circumvent the limits of section 66.3 since "county boards of supervisors" are not among the entities authorized to bring removal petitions. See Iowa Code § 66.3. Nonetheless, in this case we do not have merely the Board's action appointing Brown pursuant to section 331.754(4). The district court also appointed Brown pursuant to section 66.12. Therefore, without deciding whether Brown would have had authority to pursue the removal action if the court had not appointed him under section 66.12, we decline Watkins's request to hold the removal petition should have been dismissed based on lack of authority.

         B. Removal from Office.

         Iowa Code section 66.1A states,

Any appointive or elective officer, except such as may be removed only by impeachment, holding any public office in the state or in any division or municipality thereof, may be removed from office by the district court for any of the following reasons:
1. For willful or habitual neglect or refusal to perform the duties of the office.
2. For willful misconduct or maladministration in office.
3. For corruption.
4. For extortion.
5. Upon conviction of a felony.
6. For intoxication, or upon conviction of being intoxicated.
7. Upon conviction of violating the provisions of chapter 68A.

Iowa Code § 66.1A. "A proceeding to remove a public officer under this statute is a drastic one and is penal or quasi-criminal in character." City of Des Moines v. Dist. Ct., 241 Iowa 256, 262, 41 N.W.2d 36, 39 (1950). "Removal is drastic and penal." Callaway, 268 N.W.2d at 842. "The object 'is to rid the community of a corrupt, incapable or unworthy official.'" Id. (quoting State v. Welsh, 109 Iowa 19, 21, 79 N.W. 369, 370 (1899)). "[T]he remedy provided by statute for the removal of duly elected public officials is heroic in nature and relatively drastic in a system where the usual method of removing officeholders is by resort to the ballot." Bartz, 224 N.W.2d at 638.

         We have previously emphasized the summary and expedited nature of removal and noted that it "implement[s] a legislative intent that a public officer guilty of willful misconduct or maladministration be removed during the same term of office in which the conduct occurred that provided grounds for removal." State ex rel. Doyle v. Benda, 319 N.W.2d 264, 266 (Iowa 1982). Essentially, removal proceedings exist to provide a remedy when the misconduct is serious enough that waiting until the next election is inadequate. See id. (noting that removal proceedings are designed to occur before the next election and are mooted if the official is voted out of office or reelected with knowledge of the alleged wrongdoing). They are meant to protect public interests, and those interests are imperiled when a public official's "administration of the office is marked by such grave misconduct or such flagrant incompetency as demonstrates his unfitness for the position." State ex rel. Barker v. Meek, 148 Iowa 671, 680, 127 N.W. 1023, 1026 (1910).

         The State bears the burden of proof in removal proceedings to establish the alleged wrongdoer's "willful intent to do wrong [and] an evil purpose upon the part of the accused, . . . by clear, convincing, satisfactory evidence." Smith, 232 Iowa at 255, 4 N.W.2d at 268. This standard of proof is defined as "the establishment of facts by more than a preponderance of the evidence, but something less than establishing a factual situation beyond a reasonable doubt." Bartz, 224 N.W.2d at 638. Moreover, with regard to section 66.1A(2), the phrase "in office" modifies both "willful misconduct" and "maladministration," so the State bears the additional burden of showing by clear, convincing, and satisfactory evidence that the alleged wrongdoer's acts were committed within the scope of his or her official responsibilities. See, e.g., State ex rel. Gebrink v. Hospers, 147 Iowa 712, 714, 126 N.W. 818, 819 (1910) (noting removal "should be exercised only in cases of official wrongdoing established by clear and satisfactory evidence").[4] Therefore, the public official's alleged wrongdoing must take place within his or her capacity as a public official and not when the official was acting as a private citizen.

         As we have noted, the district court removed Watkins from office for sexual harassment, either rejecting or not reaching the other grounds. The State does not argue on appeal that any of those other grounds should have been sustained. Thus, our sole duty on appeal is to decide whether the allegations of sexual harassment are such as to constitute willful misconduct or maladministration in office warranting removal from office.

         1. Defining "willful misconduct or maladministration.

         " We have defined "willfully" in the removal context to mean that the public official must act "intentionally, deliberately, with a bad or evil purpose, contrary to known duty." State v. Roth, 162 Iowa 638, 651, 144 N.W. 339, 344 (1913). In the removal context, "[c]onduct may be voluntary, thoughtless, or even reckless, yet not necessarily willful. Nor does unlawfulness necessarily imply willfulness." Meek, 148 Iowa at 674, 127 N.W. at 1024 (citation omitted).

         We have routinely applied a subjective-intent standard to examine the public official's purpose when he or she engaged in the charged acts to determine whether the official intentionally and deliberately committed those acts. For example, in Roth, we held that the removal of a mayor and chief of police was improper based on claims that they were "willfully" neglecting to prevent baseball from being played on Sundays when such activity may or may not have been illegal on the Sabbath day. 162 Iowa at 651, 144 N.W. at 344. In doing so, we examined the subjective intent of the public officials, noting that the city officials were acting in good faith based on their uncertainty of the law at issue rather than neglecting to enforce it. Id.

         Further, in State ex rel. Cochran v. Zeigler, we held the state failed to demonstrate willful misconduct in office to justify the removal of a mayor based on allegations that the mayor violated the law by having an interest in contracts for goods or services to be furnished or performed for the city. 199 Iowa 392, 397, 202 N.W. 94, 96 (1925). We reached this conclusion based on the lack of evidence in the record "to indicate a corrupt purpose upon the part of [the mayor], or that fraud or imposition was practiced upon the city." Id. Moreover, in State v. Manning, we held the state failed to show public officials acted willfully to justify their removal for willful and habitual neglect, maladministration, and corruption in office because we could not find a "purpose, on the part of said officials in what they did, to harm, or which was inimical to the interests of such city." 220 Iowa 525, 528, 259 N.W. 213, 215-16 (1935).

         Thus, it is not a question of whether a reasonable person would find that the public official acted contrary to his or her duties or even unlawfully. Nor is it a question of how outrageous or inappropriate the public official's conduct is perceived by our court or others in the community. Rather, the first issue before us hinges on the public official's subjective intent to act with a bad or evil purpose to commit his or her charged acts of wrongdoing contrary to a known duty.

         In addition to the public official's subjective intent at the time of the charged misconduct or maladministration, we must also discern whether the public official acted contrary to a known duty when he or she engaged in these acts. See Roth, 162 Iowa at 651, 144 N.W. at 344. More specifically, we have held that removal "should be exercised only in cases of official wrongdoing established by clear and satisfactory evidence." Hospers, 147 at 714, 126 N.W. at 819. To illustrate, in Callaway, we found willful misconduct or maladministration in office to justify removal where a sheriff repeatedly assaulted prisoners without justification by kicking, striking, and punching them, spraying them in the face with mace, and kneeing them in the groin. 268 N.W.2d at 843-47, 848. In reaching this decision, we noted the sheriff's treatment of the prisoners violated various laws, including his legal duty "to protect prisoners from insult and annoyance." Id. at 847. Likewise, we ...


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