As you may be aware, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has issued a ruling intended to put to rest any argument over who has the authority to hire special outside counsel to represent Dallas County in civil matters -- the Dallas County District Attorney or the county commissioners court. Two folks in particular wanted the AG to rule in the matter: State Senator Florence Shapiro and Dallas County Auditor Virginia Porter.
The answer, says Abbott, is quite clear: The DA has "a duty to represent the state in criminal matters in Dallas County," unless the district attorney has a conflict of interest. In which case, Abbott writes, the DA and only the DA has "the power to select counsel and to determine the terms and duration of the engagement where the representation will include filing or defending a suit by or against the County." He writes, in summary:
While the Dallas County Criminal District Attorney is not barred from exercising this or any other power on account of his status as a state prosecutor under the statutory provision defining and constraining that office, he is subject to ethical rules governing conflicts of interest that could preclude him from selecting counsel. Whether such a conflict exists is a matter for the Criminal District Attorney and the County Commissioners to determine in the first instance and, barring agreement, as an ancillary matter for the civil court.
The issue, of course, stems from the heated battle over the investigations into alleged wrongdoing by county constables Derick Evans and Jaime Cortes, which was ultimately turned over to a special prosecutor. Watkins tells Unfair Park today he's not sure of the status of that investigation at present: "I can't tell you where they are of if anything will happen or if and when it will." He reminds: "The city council investigation took five years." So, he says, he will wait.
As for the AG's ruling, which Watkins received yesterday, he says: "Because the election got so heated, I forgot about it. I was surprised when it came out." But he wasn't surprised by its contents. And he's not about to gloat, at least not publicly.
"When we were advising the commisioners about how to go about obtaining private counsel, we said, 'There's a code in place,' and they have to follow it," he says. "And, unfortunately, they took a different view."
I asked: Does he feel vindicated by the AG's ruling?
"I'm trying to stay away from those kind of words," he says, with the barest hint of a laugh. "We all realize we've come through a difficult political season, and it doesn't benefit the citizens of Dallas County. We need to present a good relationship with the commissioners court going forward. I've talked to [John Wiley] Price, I've got a call into [Mike] Cantrell, and we're going to work hand in hand to make sure this office is adequately funded. There was some politically manueveing done about the DA's budget. That's obvious. But we're past that. It's time for us to move forward and make sure we don't take for granted the folks who put us here, the citizens of Dallas County. I am not trying to take a victory lap and say I told you."
The ruling, reminds Watkins, doesn't have any bearing on what's already taken place in the commissioners court. But it will, he says, shape his -- and the court's -- behavior moving forward.
"The only thing it affects is, the AG has said that any time there needs be outside counsel, it has to go through the district attorney's office, and I would hope this would settle that score. As it relates to anything else, therein lies the only issue we would have been dealing with going forward. So I would hope that when everyone gets back in the saddle, there would be a different tone, even with the consistency of the court right now before the new court takes its seat in January. We will be able to get though till January and do the business of the citizens of Dallas County."
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.