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State prosecutors filed a petition seeking the removal of Rockingham County Attorney James Reams from office, accusing him of sexual harassment and misapplication of state fines and federal forfeiture money. (JAMES A. KIMBLE/FILE PHOTO)

UPDATED: AG petitions judge to remove Rockingham County attorney from office

BRENTWOOD — State prosecutors asked a judge to remove Rockingham County Attorney James Reams from his elected office, citing instances of sexual harassment, improper use of county and federal money and his failure to disclose potentially useful information to the defense in a 2006 sexual assault trial.

The petition comes in the wake of an investigation by the state Attorney General's Office that began in October when a former employee complained about being sexually harassed by Reams.

Prosecutors would not say on Tuesday whether they will file any criminal charges.

"The investigation has reached a point where we were able to file this petition," Associate Attorney General Jane Young said. She said if more information comes forward, they will review it and take the appropriate action.

The statute of limitations gives state prosecutors two years to file criminal charges against Reams once he leaves office.

Reams was stripped from his prosecutorial duties on Nov. 6 by Attorney General Joseph Foster. Two other employees, who have since resigned from their jobs, were suspended on the same day.

The 25-page petition filed by Foster and county commissioners alleges that women working at the Rockingham County Attorney's Office complained about Reams' behavior to the Attorney General's Office in 1999, and the county's Human Resources Department in 2012. But no disciplinary action was apparently taken regarding the matters.

"The investigation confirmed that, for over 14 years, women in the RCAO have been subjected to conduct that includes alleged sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, improper application of the Family Medical Leave Act and retaliation," state prosecutors said in the court petition.

1999 investigation

The 1999 investigation into sexual harassment by then-Attorney General Phil McLaughlin ended with Reams receiving a letter warning him about his alleged behavior, the petition said. Reams denied any wrongdoing at the time.

In 2012, the county's Human Resource Department conducted its own investigation into Reams, reviewing claims of "gender discrimination, sexual harassment, pregnancy discrimination, and retaliation."

That investigation found that "a hostile work environment existed and that retaliation had occurred." But Reams rejected the county's findings and no further action was taken.

"Rather, he attacked the investigation, the witnesses and the process," prosecutors said.

Reams allegedly made sexually explicit comments about one employee's high-heeled shoes and warned others about getting pregnant, according to the petition.

One employee told investigators about Reams placing his finger where her blouse became undone.

"Reams' conduct toward women in his office earned him the nickname 'creepy Uncle Jim' among some of his employees," according to the state's petition.

April 7 hearing

Defense lawyer Michael Ramsdell said on Tuesday that Reams has not yet had a chance to review the complaint because he was traveling home from his mother's funeral in Nebraska.

"I can tell you he is certainly glad that the allegations have been disclosed," Ramsdell said.

With the petition now filed, state prosecutors will have to turn over reports and other evidence to the defense, allowing them to answer the accusations in detail, Ramsdell said.

The petition to remove Reams from office will not subdue the pair of lawsuits challenging decisions to suspend his prosecutorial powers and bar him from entering his office, according to Ramsdell.

"He still feels a commitment to the voters of Rockingham County who elected him into office," Ramsdell said.

Reams wants to clear his name and return so he can finish his last term in office, according to Ramsdell.

But the election calendar may ultimately prevent Reams from stepping back into his office at the courthouse if he prevails. Civil actions can take upward of a year or more before they head to trial; Reams' term is set to expire in November. He announced three weeks ago that he will not run for re-election.

Hearings on Reams' lawsuits against the state attorney general and county commissioners are set for April 7.

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