Dallas County DA Hawk resigns after bouts of mental illness

Susan Hawk

DALLAS (AP) — The Dallas County district attorney, who has spoken publicly about her battles with depression and anxiety, resigned her office Tuesday just a month after returning to work following her third inpatient treatment for mental illness.

Since taking office in January 2015, Susan Hawk’s tenure has been marked by long absences as she sought treatment. The Republican had returned to work in early August after spending nearly two months at an Arizona clinic. Her second-in-command, Messina Madson, said at the time Hawk had no plans to resign. By that point, Hawk had worked only about 65 days in 2016.

“I believe our office is making a difference and I want to continue that good work,” Hawk said in her resignation letter dated Tuesday to Gov. Greg Abbott. “But last fall upon returning from treatment, I made a commitment to step away from the office if I felt I could no longer do my job, and unfortunately I’ve reached that point as my health needs my full attention in the coming months.”

Her resignation is effective immediately.

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Earlier this summer, Hawk said in a statement, “Mental illness is a fluid and dynamic disease that calls for unexpected and prolonged treatment. I did not choose this disease, but I am choosing to treat it aggressively and openly.”

In an interview with D Magazine for a story published last October, Hawk said there was a time she wanted to resign because she was having suicidal thoughts. Instead, she spent two months at a psychiatric hospital in Houston.

Hawk also spent time in rehab for a prescription drug addiction in 2013 during her campaign for office.

Dallas County Democrats last year moved beyond nuanced calls for her resignation and explicitly pushed for her ouster from a position that pays about $210,000.

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Hawk’s staff previously issued statements when she was not in the office for an extended period. Last year, she had not been seen for weeks at the Dallas courthouse before her office revealed she was seeking mental health treatment. Hawk’s absences had generated numerous questions about the management of her office and her ability to perform her duties. One of the attorneys on her staff had said he left his letter of resignation on her desk last year and it remained there two weeks later.

Hawk is a former district court judge who surprised some when in November 2014 she defeated incumbent Democrat Craig Watkins.

Watkins won national acclaim during his eight years as Dallas County DA for creating a Conviction Integrity Unit that freed more than 30 men wrongfully convicted of crimes.

But the FBI investigated how he handled a mortgage-fraud case involving an oil heir, and opponents accused Watkins of bullying opponents and using county funds to cover up a car accident in which he acknowledged using his cellphone while driving.

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Heath Harris, the former first assistant district attorney under Watkins, said the legal community, as colleagues, wanted Hawk to “do what she needed to do to take care of her health.” He said her absence was likely difficult for the staff overall.

“The district attorney is the captain of the ship. When that captain is not present it affects everything,” Watkins said. “You can have a co-pilot or assistant, but that’s not the captain and it affects morale, how people interact with each other. The office doesn’t run as effectively or efficiently as it should.”

The start of Hawk’s term was tumultuous, with allegations of paranoid behavior and the dismissal of top staffers. Some complained that Hawk had created a toxic atmosphere of suspicion in the district attorney’s office.

If Hawk had resigned before Aug. 26, voters would have chosen her successor in November, The Dallas Morning News reported. But since she resigned after that, Gov. Abbott will make the decision.

John Wittman, a spokesman for Abbott, said the Governor’s Appointments Office will begin accepting applications and “will take the appropriate time” choosing a replacement.

Harris, who served under a Democrat, said he found the timing of Hawk’s resignation after that election deadline to be, “disingenuous and a disservice to the people of Dallas County.”