AP Interview: Dallas DA plans to fight back

NOMAAN MERCHANT, Associated Press

DALLAS (AP) — Fresh off a bruising year with allegations of an FBI investigation and prosecutorial misconduct, the Dallas County district attorney says he’s planning to fight back.

Craig Watkins, in an interview with The Associated Press, denied being under federal investigation in a mortgage fraud case that threatened to dent the reputation of Texas’ first black district attorney and his advocacy for the wrongfully convicted. A judge cited Watkins for contempt of court and federal agents pried into the fraud case, which some said was brought as a favor to a friend and political donor.

Watkins said he’s ready to seek re-election this fall and advance his office’s work, lashing out at both opponents for stoking negative headlines and judges he accused of being incompetent.

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Asked if he was under investigation, Watkins said: “No. I’ll tell you emphatically. That was a legal strategy.”

“The first African-American district attorney is going about doing his business, his job, and all of a sudden he’s put under scrutiny because a rich white guy from Highland Park gets indicted,” Watkins said. “Are you kidding me?”

The 46-year-old Watkins is finishing his second term as Dallas’ district attorney. His office is perhaps best known for helping free more than 30 wrongfully convicted men. Watkins pushed forward DNA testing of evidence stored away in some cases for decades, earning national acclaim and awards.

His office touts a 99.4 percent conviction rate. Watkins has also used his position to push for statewide criminal justice reforms, with limited success. He said last week that he wants to study new potential pools of wrongful conviction cases, including arson and “shaken baby” cases, as well as boosting funding to prosecute white-collar crimes and studying whether people convicted of non-violent felonies can have their records automatically expunged years later.

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But Watkins won re-election four years ago by just 5,000 votes, and his two opponents so far say they see him as vulnerable.

One reason why is an indictment his office won against Al Hill III, a great-grandson of oil titan H.L. Hunt, for falsely filling out mortgage loan paperwork that fueled headlines for months. Hill’s attorneys alleged Watkins pushed the case to a grand jury as a favor to a friend and key political donor, Lisa Blue, who was fighting Hill in a civil suit over lawyer’s fees.

Watkins refused to testify, and State District Judge Lena Levario held him in contempt of court and dismissed the mortgage fraud case. The contempt citation was cleared in August by another judge, and an appeals court is reviewing Levario’s dismissal of the fraud case.

The U.S. attorney’s office said last year that it had closed its investigation, though attorneys for Hill say the FBI is still interested in the case. The FBI has declined to comment.

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Months later, Watkins is still angry about what happened. He also had harsh words for Levario, accusing her of misapplying the law.

One of Watkins’ top prosecutors, Tammy Kemp, is challenging Levario in the November election. Watkins denied pushing Kemp to take on the judge, but said he understood her choice and supported prosecutors running for a seat on the bench while keeping their jobs — a change in policy from when he first became DA. Six of his prosecutors are running for judgeships.

“What we correctly realized is we need some competent judges working down here at the courthouse,” he said. “So therein lies why you have so many prosecutors who’ve decided, because they have dealt with incompetence on that bench for eight years, who’ve decided that they want to run for judge and bring justice to Dallas County.”

Asked about Watkins’ comments, Levario pointed to her years as a judge and her work as a lawyer and public defender beforehand.

“People at the courthouse say a lot of things about me, but they sure don’t call me incompetent,” she said, adding: “I think that I’ve done a very good job for our community. I work hard at trying to keep the community safe and rehabilitating defendants to keep them out of jail.”

Watkins will face one of two opponents currently in the Republican primary, former district judge Susan Hawk and former prosecutor Tom Nowak. Hawk and Nowak, in interviews, accused Watkins of sullying the office with bad publicity and being a divisive leader.

But Watkins said he was confident about the race and thought it would set the tone for a long future.

“To be realistic, this may be a 30-, 40-year career for me here as Dallas County DA,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoy what I do, and I think once we get through this election cycle, then the politics of it all will settle down.”