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Court suspends license of former prosecutor who stole woman's panties

Ruling of sexual harassment contrasts to ruling made last year

Gavel. (MGN)
Gavel. (MGN)

DES MOINES — The Iowa Supreme Court on Friday indefinitely suspended the law license of a former assistant Marshall County attorney who stole a female prosecutor’s underwear from her home and photographed other undergarments in the bedroom and her gym bag.

Justice David Wiggins, in the ruling, said the sanction imposed by the court’s grievance commission — a 90-day suspension — wasn’t harsh enough for Benjamin Stansberry, 42, of Marshalltown, who the court found violated three ethical rules, including engaging in sexual harassment.

“Stansberry targeted women attorneys under his supervision,” Wiggins wrote in the opinion. “Stansberry snuck into the office of ‘Doe’ and ‘Roe’ (two women prosecutors), rifled through their personal bags, and took photographs of their undergarments for his own sexual gratification.”

He also used his position and his job to find his “victims,” Wiggins stated. The women trusted Stansberry because of their relationship with him as an attorney and their supervisor.

After he was caught stealing undergarments, he looked up topics on the internet, such as “how to cope with a sex scandal,” and “hostile environmental sexual harassment.”

“Thus, it appears that, in his own mind, Stansberry believed he engaged in sexual harassment,” Wiggins wrote.

This ruling is in stark contrast to the opinion made last year regarding Van Buren County Attorney Abraham Watkins, who was ousted by a judge for sexually harassing co-workers. The court overturned that judge’s ruling, saying the misconduct of Watkins — who was accused of coming into the office wearing only boxer briefs in front of a legal assistant, commenting on female employees’ breasts and making other sexual comments — didn’t warrant “drastic” and “penal” action to remove an elected official from office.

Three justices dissented to that ruling, including Wiggins, who wrote for the majority in the Stansberry case. In the Watkins’ ruling, Wiggins wrote that the prosecutor was getting his job back by the “good-old-boy excuse.”

Watkins resigned in July after the ruling.

No women were on the Supreme Court last June when the Watkins’ ruling was made. Justice Susan Christensen was appointed to the court two months later.

Documents in the Stansberry case indicate the prosecutor sent a text Aug. 22, 2016, to “Jane Doe,” asking if he could stop by her house with his toddler. At the time, Doe was an assistant county attorney under Stansberry’s supervision.

Doe was mowing her lawn, and Stansberry asked if he could use her restroom when he arrived, according to the ruling. He asked her to watch his sleeping child, who was in a stroller. Stansberry stayed inside the house for about five minutes before returning outside and leaving.

Doe continued her yard work and noticed something lying in her driveway. She realized it was a pair of her underwear. Doe reported the incident to her boss, Marshall County Attorney Jennifer Miller. Miller started an investigation and put Stansberry on administrative leave.

The ruling shows Stansberry denied to police taking anything from Doe’s home, from taking photos in her home and denied deleting photos from his cell phone.

Investigators found, after searching Stansberry phone, that he had deleted photos showing that he went into the woman’s bedroom and into her gym bag to photograph the items, the ruling shows. There also were photos showing he entered the office of another woman prosecutor, identified as “Jane Roe,” and took photos of her undergarments in her gym bag.

At the time Stansberry resigned Aug. 26, 2016, he had 145 cases, and Miller, the county attorney, found he hadn’t followed office protocol for note-taking and saving communications with defense lawyers in the office’s computer database, according to the ruling.

Assistant county attorneys had to spend considerable time assessing the cases, which resulted in dismissed charges because of missed deadlines and upset victims and caused significant work for the office and the clerk of court’s office.

Stansberry was charged and pleaded guilty to fifth-degree theft and criminal trespass. He paid a $65 fine. The court also granted a no-contact order, naming Doe as the protected person.

Wiggins, in the ruling, said both women suffered mental and emotional trauma from Stansberry’s actions. Doe resigned from her job, sold her home and moved. She also sought treatment from a therapist and was prescribed medication.

Roe also went into therapy and began taking medication, and other staff members of the county attorney’s office felt “victimized and unsafe in their workspace due to Stansberry’s conduct.”

Wiggins said the “victims” of Stansberry’s actions feel sexually violated and his actions “reflect adversely on his fitness as a lawyer.”

Also, his criminal acts and denials to law enforcement “demonstrate a lack of respect for the law” and authorities, Wiggins wrote.

The court ruled Stansberry’s law license should be suspended indefinitely, with no possibility of reinstatement for one year from the filing of this opinion. To establish his eligibility for reinstatement, he must meet all the requirements under the court rules and provide an evaluation from a licensed health care professional verifying his fitness to practice law.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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