Sissonville resident Robert Harper Sr., rear, exits the Judicial Investigation Commission's office July 20 with his friend Tom Akers after delivering a complaint against Putnam Family Law Judge William M. "Chip" Watkins III. (Photo by Lawrence Smith)
CHARLESTON – A Putnam County family law judge again is accused of showing ill-temper toward a litigant.
Robert R. Harper Sr. on July 20 filed an ethics complaint with the Judicial Investigation Commission against William M. "Chip" Watkins III. In his complaint, Harper, 62, a retired Greyhound bus driver from Sissonville, said that in the five times he's appeared in family court since December, Watkins has "screamed, cussed, belittled, humiliated and threatened me in most of these hearings."
Following one of those hearings on Jan 26, Harper says Watkins had him "jailed for 21 days for non-disclosure of monies that I had received in a malpractice settlement." A video of that hearing has been posted on YouTube.
The purpose of the hearing was for Harper to prove why he should not be held in contempt for failing to pay child support to his ex-wife, Joyce Harper Halstead, whom he divorced in 1978. A year ago, Harper says Halstead, who lives in Eleanor, with the help of the state Department of Health and Human Resources' Bureau for Child Support Enforcement, petitioned the court to collect alleged back child support despite money being deducted from his Social Security benefits for the last 18 years.
About two minutes into the hearing, Watkins asks Harper to explain why he failed to disclose the proceeds he received from a medical malpractice suit he filed against the Cleveland Clinic for an operation that resulted in the amputation of his left leg below the knee. When Harper attempts to explain himself, Watkins cuts him off, and shouts, "Where's the money?"
When Harper says he's prohibited to disclosing the amount, Watkins asks "What to you mean?" After Harper says he's prohibited from disclosing the amount he received from the settlement due to a confidentiality agreement he signed, Watkins becomes agitated and says, " No, no! No, no, no, no, no, no, there's money that's supposed to be available."
After Harper points over to Halstead and says, "The money for her is available, sir," Watkins asks again, "Where is it?" When Harper says, "Contact my lawyer, sir," Watkins retorts, "No, Goddamit!"
After Harper says "Don't cuss me, sir," Watkins responds by saying, "I'm going to cuss you because you came into my courtroom and lied." When Watkins again asks Harper why Halstead has not been paid, Harper again directs Watkins to contact his lawyer.
At that point, Watkins slams some files onto his desk, and exclaims, "That's not my job!" Watkins then instructs his baliff to "Take his [Harper's] ass into custody, I'm tired of it."
After Harper puts on a baseball hat, and lifts himself out his chair onto his crutches, Watkins says, "Now, you call up your lawyer and find out how to get you butt out of jail, and that's to sign over the money."
In concluding his complaint, Harper says he has received letters from Watkins "with remarks that I personally take as threats." Dealings with the family court over the last several months, Harper says, have resulted in him "suffering from mental exhaustion."
"I am tired of Mr. Watkins and BCSE threatening me with jail and the lose [sic] of my only means of transportation," Harper said.
The West Virginia Record attempted to get a comment from Watkins regarding Harper's complaint. He did not return repeated phone calls.
Harpers' complaint is at least the sixth filed against Watkins with JIC this year. That includes one by Hurricane Pastor Arthur D. Hage last month that included release of a video from a May 23 hearing where Watkins falsely accuses Hage of being behind an article that appeared the day before on a Putnam County news website about Watkins and his wife previously being delinquent in paying their homeowner's association dues.
The video shows Watkins, at times screaming so loud that it distorts the courtroom microphones. Also, Wakins threatens to put Hage in jail for not only contempt, but also if finds out if Hage was behind the acts of vandalism that occurred to his home following publication of the article.