Craig Watkins Is Feeling a Little Picked On, So Just Back Off, 'K?

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In this week’s paper version of Unfair Park, Buzz talks about Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins' defensiveness concerning criticism directed at him and his office. Watkins was asked about a few issues, most notably his decision to charge Lynn Flint Shaw with a misdemeanor instead of a felony for forging his name to avoid paying a debt. As we pointed out in Buzz, the events of Monday night made publishing it as a news story tragically moot. However, some of what Watkins said during our interview, including some of the comments about Shaw’s case, are worthy of discussion here on Unfair Park.

Last week, Watkins told us that Shaw was not a friend and that he never socialized with her. He dismissed any allegations that charging Shaw with a misdemeanor was a favor for his political ally and mentor, State Sen. Royce West, who was very, very close with the Shaws. Watkins said Shaw could have been charged with a felony, but he felt the misdemeanor charge was more appropriate since it didn’t involve an instrument of currency, such as a money order or check.

“I’ve read all the blogs with folks saying it should be a felony, but what they’re not saying is that it’s under the district attorney’s discretion on how to charge a certain case,” Watkins said. “We chose to go with the misdemeanor charge because we felt that the charge was provable in court.”

Criminal defense lawyer Peter Lesser, who lost to Watkins in the 2002 Democratic primary, said last week that statues have different levels of flexibility, which allow for the district attorney to choose the most appropriate charge. In Shaw’s case, Lesser said he didn’t think there was anything “sinister” about the charge, and the decision was likely made because Shaw used bad judgment as opposed to criminal intent.

“I’m assuming if he’s chosen to charge her with a misdemeanor, then that’s what the office believes it can prove,” Lesser said. “It happens all the time.”

Watkins was asked about Shaw’s reporting of $19,225 in payments to Dallas lawyer Michael Sorrell during her recent attempt to run for city council. Sorrell told Unfair Park he received less than $2,000 of that amount. Watkins wouldn’t confirm or deny that his office looked into this matter, and he expressed frustration about criticism his office has received about not commenting on pending cases.

“This is a judicial process. It’s gotta be fair -- not only fair to the defendant but fair to us,” Watkins said. “We don’t want to jeopardize our case by printing stuff in the newspaper about it.”

SMU political science professor Cal Jillson said last week that he’s surprised Watkins feels he has been unfairly criticized. Watkins has done a good job in his first year and there have been “far more pluses than minuses,” according to Jillson. He said he wasn’t under the impression that Watkins was “taking incoming fire” about the Shaw case, and instead, her actions cast a shadow over Mayor Tom Leppert.

“My sense is that [Watkins] had a little bit of a rough ride during his campaign, perhaps a little underserved, where I and others talked about his personal debts and business dealings,” Jillson said. “But since he’s taken office, it seems to me that his press has been very positive.”

Watkins, the first black district attorney in Texas, said he has been scrutinized much more than his predecessors. “How often did people raise questions with Bill Hill on the day-to-day operations of that office? How often did they do that with John Vance or Henry Wade? Never!”

Jillson said that dating back to Henry Wade, the district attorney’s office didn’t get the scrutiny it deserved, but he doesn’t think Bill Hill got away unscathed. He said the fake-drugs scandal killed Hill’s political career and took a toll on him.

Lesser said that once Hill decided not to run in 2006, he became a “lame duck,” so no one cared about him anymore and instead focused on the race between Toby Shook and Watkins. He said there may be some residual anger from Watkins because The Dallas Morning News endorsed Hill in 2002, despite the controversy regarding the fake-drugs scandal.

“I think [The Dallas Morning News] pummeled Bill Hill pretty good during the drug scandal,” Lesser said. “They just overlooked it when they decided to endorse him in the general election.”

Watkins has been quick to defend himself, sending editorials to Unfair Park, The Dallas Morning News and other media outlets. Most recently, Watkins defended himself against an allegation made by News columnist Steve Blow that his news conference releasing information related to the JFK assassination was “irresponsible.”

Jillson said Watkins has an appetite for the spotlight and can occasionally get carried away, and the Kennedy news conference “wasn’t a particularly attractive or effective moment for him.” Lesser disagreed, saying that Bill Hill and John Vance should be criticized for not releasing the information sooner. He said because Watkins is only 40 years old, he wasn’t alive when it happened, and it is only history to him.

“For those of us who were alive, it’s real,” Lesser said. “If you’re going to criticize him, maybe he doesn’t know enough about the history.”

In his 15 months in office, Watkins has been praised for his work in DNA exonerations with the Innocence Project and for reforming the justice system in Dallas County. But he’s faced some criticism recently regarding the Shaw case, the JFK press conference, asking for the return of $1 million from the Dallas County Commissioners given to them when Bill Hill left office and, most recently, allegations about wrecking county cars.

“At some point, these people need to realize that I’m here to do my job,” Watkins said. “I’ve done it for a year, and I don’t think you can really criticize anything that I’ve done.”

Watkins said he’s made the district attorney’s office a better place and raised its credibility. Both Jillson and Lesser stress that Watkins’ press has been mostly positive, and his first year has been a success.

“Watkins is drawing attention to role of D.A. in politics in a very healthy way,” Jillson said. “The D.A.’s office needed to be cleaned and aired out, and Watkins is helping the city do that.” --Sam Merten

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