Craig Watkins' Office Sees Conspiracy Behind News' Request for Public Records

A judge asked the Dallas County District Attorney's Office and The Dallas Morning News to salvage their relationship Monday, but instead the two parties will duke it out in court.
A lawyer for the Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins says politics is behind a Dallas Morning News lawsuit seeking to force Watkins' office to comply with Texas' public records law and release documents about how the district attorney spends forfeiture funds.

"This is not about trying to get records," Russell Wilson, an assistant district attorney, told state District Judge Jim Jordan at a hearing Monday. The timing, Wilson said, was "suspicious" since the News filed its lawsuit on October 23, one week after its editorial board endorsed Republican Susan Hawk, who is running against Watkins in next week's election.

It's an interesting theory, and usually Unfair Park is willing to believe all sorts of dark motives lurk behind decisions at the Morning News, but it ignores the fact that News courthouse reporter Jennifer Emily filed her first request for records about Watkins' use of his office's civil forfeiture funds on September 4. She filed a second request for additional records on September 15. The News' lawyer sent his own letter asking about her request on October 1 and another on October 9. In the latter, he even warned the district attorney's office that the paper was ready to consider its legal options if Watkins' office didn't respond by October 13.

The News' suit says Watkins' office didn't respond at all to the September 4 request and only partly to the one filed September 15.

Emily filed her first request asking for checks, memos, invoices and emails on expenditures relating to the forfeiture fund because Watkins' had used money from that fund, which the government collects from criminals, to settle a claim from the driver of a car Watkins' rear-ended in 2013. The settlement required the other driver to keep it quiet, but news of the settlement leaked earlier this year.

Wilson pointed out that Emily and the District Attorney's Office have a "good working relationship" and that he and Emily had exchanged emails Monday morning, presumably not about the News' lawsuit. Emily had even brought the office cupcakes in the past, Wilson said.

"The relationship between the parties has been an informal one," Judge Jordan remarked Monday, "until now."

It's not unusual for beat reporters to develop casual relationships with the people they cover every day -- or to try to butter them up, for that matter. Cupcakes are a nice, homey touch, an update from the more traditional booze.

Bob Mong, the News' editor, said the relationship between his paper and the district attorney in terms of fulfilling open-records requests has been up and down. "It could be better," he said.

Wilson told Unfair Park he thinks Watkins' office has been readily available to the media, especially the News. He also thought the lawsuit was meant to serve the "political motives of the higher-ups there" at the paper.

We asked Mong whether he thought people might buy Wilson's suggestion. "I don't care," he replied.

The District Attorney's Office fulfilled part of Emily's request (Wilson kept a 5-inch thick file folder close to him at Monday's hearing). But an assistant district attorney also told Emily the forfeiture funds were being audited and some of the records were unavailable until some unspecified later date.

On September 22, Emily sent an email to an assistant district attorney saying she did not need the documents relating to the forfeiture fund. She insisted in court that she only meant part of the documents she requested and that she had told the assistant what those parts were in person before she sent the email. She sent the email thinking that would be understood.

Wilson argued that her wording could be construed as withdrawing her whole request. He also said that no one in Watkins' office refused to comply with her request.

The News' lawyer, Paul Watler, said the failure to comply constituted a refusal, and the district attorney should be forced to hand over the remaining documents.

The judge ruled Tuesday morning that the district attorney failed "in part" to comply with the News' request. "Compliance became confusing in light of the withdrawal of the request," Wilson told us Tuesday.

In December, Watkins will get to argue if Watkins has a compelling enough reason to withhold the rest of the documents. "We sort of won it and lost it," Mong, the News' editor, said.

December, coincidentally, is after the November general election.

Send your story tips to the author, Sky Chadde.

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Sky Chadde
Contact: Sky Chadde

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