Dallas County DA faces campaign donor controversy

By Nomaan Merchant, Associated Press —

DALLAS — Craig Watkins built a national reputation as Texas’ first black district attorney and the face of an office that has freed more than 30 wrongfully convicted people in the last decade. But at home, the Dallas County district attorney faces the specter of an FBI investigation and a contempt-of-court order that could potentially land him in jail and cripple his reputation as an advocate for criminal justice.

Watkins is in a bitter fight over his office’s prosecution of an oil fortune heir for mortgage fraud. A district judge earlier this year held Watkins in contempt and dismissed his office’s case after he refused to answer allegations that he pushed forward the prosecution as a favor to a friend and campaign donor.

Watkins could face anything from a verbal reprimand to jail time at his hearing Monday on the contempt charge.

The hearing comes just as Watkins is gearing up for re-election next year, after narrowly being re-elected three years ago. The district attorney says critics have made it a practice to “demonize” his prosecutors’ work, and his campaign is downplaying the effects the contempt case might have on Watkins’ chances winning over voters.

“They’re not going to let some sort of confusing courthouse drama impact their perceptions of him,” said Mark Littlefield, Watkins’ campaign consultant.

Watkins became Dallas County’s district attorney in 2007 and won national acclaim for his office’s work in freeing the wrongfully convicted, including creating the first conviction integrity unit in Texas. More than 30 inmates wrongly convicted of murders, rapes and other serious crimes have been freed in the last decade, most during Watkins’ tenure.

But it was a relatively minor mortgage fraud case — with a high-profile defendant — that has created the most recent wave of negative publicity.

Prosecutors two years ago charged Al Hill III, the oldest great-grandson of the oil titan H.L. Hunt, with filing fraudulent paperwork to obtain a $500,000 mortgage loan. Hill’s attorneys fired back by questioning why the charge was filed. They accused Watkins of having prosecutors push the investigation to a grand jury at the behest of Lisa Blue, a high-profile Dallas attorney who is a friend and donor.

The FBI has asked for access to files in the case, according to an order signed by state District Judge Lena Levario, who demanded that Watkins answer questions about the case and held him in contempt when he refused.

No charges have been filed. An FBI spokeswoman in Dallas has declined to comment.

At hearings in February and March, Hill’s attorneys presented records of phone calls between Watkins and Blue, as well as thousands of dollars of donations that came into Watkins’ campaign account shortly before a grand jury heard the case.

Several prosecutors from Watkins’ office testified that he attended a so-called “pitch meeting” in which the case — and the publicity it would get — were discussed. They said he did not intervene in the case, and pointed out that the grand jury indicted Hill after hearing the evidence.

But Watkins skipped the first hearing because prosecutors said he was sick, even though he was in his office in the same building. He took the stand in the second hearing, only to say he would not testify, citing attorney-client privilege and a state privilege protecting “work product.” A visibly frustrated Levario held him in contempt, dismissed charges against Hill and appointed another judge to review the case and determine a punishment.

“All of this evidence makes it smell really bad,” she said then.

It remains to be seen what impact the contempt proceedings will have on Watkins’ standing in Dallas. He is gearing up to run for re-election next year, and faces no announced challengers so far in the Democratic primary.

Watkins has pushed for statewide reforms, with limited success. He called at the start of the year for a Racial Justice Act that would allow defendants to introduce evidence about race in appealing conviction. The bill was introduced in the Legislature, but did not make it to a vote.

Jeff Blackburn, chief counsel of the Innocence Project of Texas, said he had had a falling-out with Watkins and accused him of being “uneven and political” in his thinking. The contempt case had the potential to sully the work criminal justice advocates do, Blackburn said.

“That was a star we didn’t need to hitch our wagon to,” Blackburn said.

But Mike Ware, who works on wrongful conviction cases in private practice after helping Watkins start his conviction integrity unit, argued that the district attorney’s work was part of the reason lawmakers have passed several criminal justice bills, including expanded access to DNA testing.

“The large number of Dallas County exonerees and the stories behind each one of their exonerations was the muscle behind the entire push for serious criminal justice reform in the Texas Legislature,” Ware said in an email.

Watkins declined comment for this story through a spokeswoman. But he hinted at his feelings last month in speaking about another high-profile case — the intoxication manslaughter charge against Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Josh Brent — in which defense attorneys have accused him of improper prosecution.

“The new trend, if you look at all the things that are going on here, is to demonize the prosecution for doing their jobs,” he said.


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