By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Imagine applying for the top job at a company that has taken you to court. Well, in a variation of the saying "if you can't beat them, join them," Craig Watkins, the Democratic candidate for Dallas County district attorney, once had a legal run-in with the office he now hopes to lead.
In July 2004, Watkins agreed to pay the district attorney's office $7,675 after he was sued over a breach of contract. Adding insult to penury, the district attorney's office threatened to seize his assets after he failed to pay back the full amount of the agreed settlement.
Beginning in May 2000, Watkins had been paying a quarterly fee to the district attorney's office for a daily report of inmates booked into the Dallas County jail. In turn, Watkins, a criminal defense attorney, would use that report to seek potential clients. But shortly after he entered into the contract, Watkins stopped paying his fee to the district attorney's office.
According to the lawsuit against the two-time candidate for district attorney, "Dallas County demanded that Craig Watkins pay the amount due on the account, but Watkins refused." Reached by phone, Watkins explains that he had tried to void the contract with the county, but the district attorney's office apparently never received his notices. Casting the legal impasse as a mundane dispute over arcane contractual details, Watkins said his decision to settle was a matter of convenience. He didn't seem to appreciate the irony of his situation as a candidate for an office that sued him and won.
"They kept sending the reports to me and said I owed them, and they ended up suing me, and I settled," Watkins says. "I didn't think it was worth the time to fight it."
Watkins says that he paid the subsequent settlement installments on schedule, but county records show that he was delinquent once again. On October 4, 2004, three months after Watkins agreed to pay his debt, Bob Schell, the chief of the civil division for the district attorney's office, sent the defense attorney a letter warning him that if he didn't settle his outstanding balance by the next morning, "we will ask the court to abstract the judgment and proceed to have a writ of execution issued."
Interestingly, if Watkins were to defeat Republican candidate Toby Shook next November, he would be Schell's new boss. Talk about having the last word.
Watkins' encounters with the district attorney's office aren't exactly out of character. On February 23, The Dallas Morning News reported that Watkins had failed to pay taxes, resulting in $100,000 in liens. Small business owners also had to take him to court in order to compel him to settle outstanding bills. Finally, attorneys for the city of Dallas placed a lien on his property after he defaulted on a $20,000 loan from the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund.
"I'm in business, and I have disputes with people," says Watkins, who owns Fair Park Bail Bonds. "Sometimes you have to go to court to resolve them. That's all that is."
For Watkins, those pesky tax problems are also a normal part of doing business. "Having disputes with the IRS goes along with the territory," he says.
But the candidate's apparent nonchalance over his debt is a part of a larger pattern, according to SMU political scientist Cal Jillson, who has followed Watkins candidacy for district attorney. "He has a little bit of a habit of ignoring these debts, denying them when they're first mentioned, claiming they've been taking care of and then circling back to resolve them."