In news that's late coming and not all that surprising, the Texas State Auditor's Office announced Tuesday that the Dallas County District Attorney's Office misused forfeiture funds during former District Attorney Craig Watkins' time in office. Among the ill-spent cash? Nearly $50,000 Watkins' office shelled out to a driver he rear-ended on the Dallas North Tollway.
Watkins' February 2013 wreck — which occurred, he said, as he was reading his phone going over a speech he was about to give — provided much of the ammo Dallas' current district attorney, Susan Hawk, fired at Watkins during her successful attempt to unseat the incumbent in 2014. The car Watkins crashed was a forfeited 2013 Ford Edge added to the county fleet, according to Watkins, because it was needed for investigations. Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell sought to have Watkins investigated by the county for the wreck but didn't get any support from the rest of the commissioner's court.
"The DA was the cause of the accident and when the county was sued the DA's office acted as the agent for Dallas County and accepted service on it," Cantrell said last August, "then, acted as the attorney for Dallas County and then acted as authority to settle the matter on our behalf, all without Dallas County knowing anything about it."
Watkins claimed he'd accepted full responsibility for the wreck to save taxpayers from having to pay for his mistake. His spokeswoman, Debbie Denmon, said at the time that using forfeiture funds for the settlement with the other driver, in addition to repairs on both vehicles, was kosher because Texas law allows the funds to be used for both repairs to county equipment and court costs incurred by the office that acquired the forfeited money.
"[The forfeiture statute] is a broad statute and it does not say anywhere that you cannot use it for this," Denmon said. "When you say you can use it for vehicles and equipment, and you can use it for legal fees and court costs and related costs, this fits within that."
Finally Tuesday, almost a year after Watkins left office, the State Auditor John Keel disagreed because, he says, Watkins personally benefited from the money's use.
"The settlement agreement released the former district attorney 'in his individual and official capacity' from all future claims and suits. By releasing the former district attorney in his individual capacity, the settlement agreement benefited the former district attorney personally; therefore, the associated settlement payment cannot be solely for the official purposes of the District Attorney’s Office. In addition, the supporting documentation for the expenditure did not include any justification for using state asset forfeiture funds for the expenditure," the auditor's report says.
In total, Keel found that about $80,000 of the more than $1 million spent by the Dallas County District Attorney's Office during the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years was done in violation of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. Outside of the infamous wreck, forfeiture money was also misused on excessive travel costs and the payment of organizational dues on Watkins' behalf. More money might have been used improperly, but Watkins' office's record-keeping with regard to its forfeiture account was too poor to tell, the audit said.
Hawk's office has agreed to implement Keel's recommendations for the ongoing use of forfeiture money, including better record-keeping and monitoring.
"The Dallas County District Attorney's Office (DCDAO) agrees to every recommendation propounded by the State Auditor's Office. While this audit involved expenditures made by a past administration of this office, many of the recommendations made have already been implemented by the current administration. The DCDAO does not agree with many of the expenditure decisions made by the prior administration. However, where we have found plausible legal reasoning for the expenditures, we have offered these legal explanations. In every case, this administration's policies and procedures will follow more closely all legal requirements and document better the decisions made," the report says.