For a while now, we’ve heard the occasional drips of concern about Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, especially about where his campaign funds have come from and where they’ve gone. While the drizzle had been infrequent enough to largely ignore, the time may have come for us to take notice and fix the problem once and for all.
Allegations in Saturday’s The Dallas Morning News suggest that Watkins used his office to help one of his biggest donors, Lisa Blue Baron, gain an advantage in a civil trial with millions of dollars on the line. By indicting Albert Hill III and Erin Hill for mortgage fraud just before they were to appear against Blue and her colleagues in a legal fees dispute, Watkins prevented the Hills from being able to fully represent themselves and seemingly enriched his benefactor in the process.
This is not the first time Watkins appears to have utilized separate rules for family, friends and political allies. It seems we are learning more every day about Watkins’ political web and how he is willing to help himself and those around him get rich and stay out of trouble. And the details are troubling.
By Blue’s own deposition admission, Watkins called her the day before the indictment was announced and specifically wanted to discuss the Hills. And phone records show the two of them conversed six times that day. Why would a district attorney repeatedly call his friend and donor to talk about an open investigation – especially knowing that she was in a legal dispute with the suspects? What justification could he have to discuss the case, if as Blue claimed, she had already told him she no longer represented the Hills?
The fact that Dallas County prosecutors focused on the mortgage fraud allegations against the Hills was suspect from the beginning. A loan the Hills were accused of defrauding was actually repaid in full more than a year before the indictments came down. The loan was never in default and the bank never filed a complaint. The charges against Erin Hill were eventually dropped; a complete waste of county resources.
If nothing more, Watkins violated his office’s own policies to help Blue. An investigation subject is usually given notice and a chance to be heard by prosecutors before the grand jury process commences. The Dallas D.A.’s office also supposedly has a policy of letting attorneys make their clients’ case to the grand jury as well. Yet none of that happened for the Hills who got indicted without warning – even as Blue was getting nearly hourly updates. If Watkins’ office had followed their own protocol, maybe they would have better understood that there were no real victims in this case.
Watkins’ tenure has been marred by allegations of trading favors and access for campaign cash, much of which has been used to support his family’s businesses and homes. Just recently, The Morning News showed that judges who hear cases brought by Watkins’ office paid Watkins’ wife Tanya more than $227,000 in consulting fees in the last three years. Additional stories showed how Watkins’ campaign funds have been used to pay for utilities and other services for his campaign office building – which also houses his family’s private businesses.
Blue gave his campaign fund more than $25,000 since 2007 and held fundraisers in her home. The fact that she was able to get what she needed shouldn’t come as a surprise. Neither should the fact that Watkins made questionable choices about which cases to indict. Many of us watched the Dallas constable saga play out for the last few years and wondered why Watkins allowed the case to stall for months on end. Watkins showed then he was willing to manipulate the city’s legal system to help out his political friends. He appears to be up to the same tricks again.
None of these ethical lapses may seem great on their own, however when taken together, a troubling pattern emerges. If the district attorney believes his office can be an ATM for him and his family and he can trade favors in exchange for cash, it is the city that ultimately suffers.
Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.