Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins has paid family members or businesses they own more than $85,000 from his campaign funds, according to Unfair Park's review of his campaign finance reports.
In addition, after his election in November 2006, Watkins begin paying utilities for his campaign office, which include a total of $28,000 for phone bills (an average of $820 per payment, and this does not include his cell phone), $21,000 for electric bills ($630 per payment), $4,900 for gas bills ($220 per payment), $4,200 for lawn care bills ($135 per payment), $2,300 for water bills ($110 per payment) and $900 for alarm monitoring bills ($27 per payment).
The trouble is, his tiny campaign office shares space with a private business owned by Watkins and his wife, plus a handful of other businesses owned by family members, and it's not clear from the reports if those businesses are paying their share of the utility bills.
Converting campaign funds for personal use is against state law.
Unfair Park tried repeatedly to ask Watkins about the expenditures from his campaign funds, but he didn't respond to written questions and several phone calls, except to assert through a spokesman -- his cousin -- that he has done nothing wrong.
For years, the corner of Martin Luther King Boulevard and Atlanta Street near Fair Park has been a second home to the district attorney, and it's not hard to understand why. The two buildings he owns at 2531 and 2535 MLK Blvd. keep his family in close proximity to each other, and Watkins built his law practice at 2531 MLK before upsetting Republican Toby Shook to become the state's first black district attorney.
The space at 2531 is occupied by a Fidelity National Title branch that he owns with wife Tanya, her political consulting business (Grass Root Strategies), cousin Kurt's public relations company (W Public Relations) and Pat Mays Realtors. Watkins also managed to squeeze his campaign headquarters into the 2,933-square-foot area. While we were not granted our request to inspect the premises, D magazine described it as "a closet-sized space so overcrowded it's a parody of a headquarters."
Next door at 2535, younger brother Greg runs T-Shirts Etcetera, a T-shirt screening company. And his parents, Richard and Paula, operate The Bridge, an adult daycare center.
The reports include a laundry list of payments to his relatives' businesses. Among them was $25,000 paid to T-Shirts Etcetera for sweatshirts and hats on Election Day in 2006, along with T-shirts for the "Senate 26, 16 convention" and "Obama Texas" in 2008. The Bridge was paid $21,000 to cater Christmas and Thanksgiving parties and to provide food for the wake and funeral dinner for Ted Watkins, Craig's uncle. Greg was also paid $32,000 for campaign work and sorting mail, and another relative, Reggie Watkins, has been paid $7,000 as a campaign worker. (We're not sure what relationship Reggie has to Craig.) All but $3,500 of the payments to Greg and Reggie were made after Watkins was elected.
Additionally, Watkins reported a $50,000 in-kind donation in 2007 from Time Warner Cable. In-kind donations are contributions of goods or services as opposed to money, and the nature of the donation is unclear based on the filing. The Texas Election Code prohibits donations from corporations to political candidates, and violations are third-degree felonies, according to the code.
The code also states that violators must knowingly commit an offense; however, as district attorney, one would assume Watkins is familiar with the law. Tim Sorrells, deputy general counsel with the Texas Ethics Commission, explains that the law is vague regarding how to determine whether someone knowingly accepts an illegal contribution. "It's something you would look at on a case-by-case basis," he says.
It's also possible that Watkins forgot to identify the contribution as coming from a political action committee, which is a private group organized to support issues or candidates, but he hasn't responded to requests to elaborate on the donation. (Corporations are allowed to create separate PACs to funnel contributions to candidates.)
Watkins' campaign reports also suggest that he may be subsidizing the utilities and other costs for his title company and other businesses sharing space with his campaign.
To determine whether his campaign is in fact paying the entire utility bills for the property at 2531 MLK Blvd. or perhaps even those of the building he owns next door, we contacted his PR man, Kurt Watkins, and asked for copies of six receipts before asking questions.
"I am more than positive you are aware of the state statute as it relates to campaign finance expenses and the reporting requirements," Craig Watkins said in a statement. "We have complied with this statute as it relates to reporting campaign expenses."
We got back in touch with Kurt, explaining our concern regarding several of the payments, including a $4,500 electric bill from July 2008 and $5,000 paid to Henry Jones for building maintenance. The address listed for Jones, 6834 Marla Drive, happens to be the former residence of Craig's grandmother, Myrtis Faye Jones Watkins, who died in November 2007. Kurt was unable to explain the bills or identify how Jones is related to Craig, and then he gave us another statement.
"Again, per state statute, we have complied with reporting requirements and campaign expenditure rules," Craig said.
Upon receiving the second statement from Craig, we asked Kurt via e-mail whether that meant Watkins wouldn't show us any receipts or answer direct questions on the expenditures.
He responded yet again with a guarded response from Craig. "And again, we have complied with reporting requirements and campaign expenditure rules."
We then forwarded 10 questions to Kurt on Thursday night regarding Craig's reports. He hasn't responded to numerous phone calls and e-mails.
Although Craig doesn't face a primary opponent, Kurt has cited Craig's busy schedule in previous e-mails and phone conversations as reasons why he's taken so long to provide statements. He has been campaigning with gubernatorial candidate Bill White, county judge candidate Clay Jenkins, county commissioner candidate Dr. Elba Garcia and others.
Why is the DA unwilling to explain his reports? Well, there's this: Section 253.035 of the Texas Election Code, which prohibits the conversion of campaign funds to personal use -- as in don't pay your private business's phone bill, or your wife's, with campaign money. Watkins regularly pays electric, gas, phone, alarm and water bills with campaign funds, which is not prohibited by law. However, the size of the payments suggests that he's not splitting the bill between the businesses that share the space at 2531 MLK Blvd., given the size of the bills and the tiny space of the building.
We asked Watkins about that, but again, he didn't respond.
Along with the $5,000 in building maintenance paid to Henry Jones, Watkins also spent $1,500 to have burglar bars installed after paying $1,850 in October 2007 for repairs following a break-in. And shortly after his election, Watkins began lease payments on a computer (paid off after $5,200), a copier ($15,000 spent so far and counting) and a mail machine ($18,800 and counting). It's unclear whether these are being used by any of the other businesses sharing space with his campaign.
Among other expenditures: $4,100 paid for commemorative plates after his election, a $4,000 reimbursement to his father for an RV rental for what appears to be Barack Obama's inauguration and $3,000 spent on the purchase of a tuxedo and shirts in March 2007.
The campaign reports revealed State Senator Royce West, a mentor to Watkins and perhaps the most powerful Democrat in the area, as the top contributor to the DA's campaign at $30,000. Watkins also failed to provide dates for any of the contributions on two reports filed in January 2009 and January 2010, and a $300 blank money order and four contributions with "can't read name" are listed on his July 2009 report.
When provided with the expenditures related to his family and utilities, Republican Dallas County Commissioner Ken Mayfield replied, "That's all illegal. He oughta be prosecuted for it. He can't personally benefit, or your relatives can't personally benefit."
However, there's nothing prohibiting Watkins from paying relatives with campaign money, and, as we were told by the Texas Ethics Commission, the utility payments would need to be analyzed.
"It really depends on what it is as to whether or not its personal use," Sorrells of the TEC says. "If it's something that's primarily for individual of family purpose and it's not really related to candidate or officeholder activity, then it's going to raise that question."
The TEC could only sanction Watkins civilly if a complaint was filed and the payments were found to be in violation, and any criminal charges would be handled by Attorney General Greg Abbott.
"We can not comment at this time," says Jerry Strickland, Abbott's spokesman.
Southern Methodist University political scientist Cal Jillson suggests such activity is only legal because "Texas has a sort of Swiss cheese approach to ethics laws." He says Watkins has advertised himself as "the new broom that sweeps clean" -- someone who would make Dallas County open, transparent and fair to all citizens of the county.
"It just strikes me as not being as careful as someday he will want to have been in taking care to be sure that his decisions map nicely onto the image that he's projecting," Jillson tells Unfair Park.
Dallas County Democratic Party chair Darlene Ewing says because it's legal, she'd rather Watkins pay his family rather than someone else who expects something in return. And she defends the payments for campaign work made after his election, noting that Watkins isn't a "typical elected official," as he has been called upon to speak and appear throughout the state and other stops around the country.
"Franky, I used to think there was an off-season to campaigning," she says. "I've come to the opinion that there's no off-season."
She says because Watkins is wary of the media, she can understand his reluctance to show us his receipts or answer questions. However, she stresses that both Craig and Tanya "check things out very carefully before they make moves" and says Tanya is thorough in that regard.
"If it's a problem, it may be a problem with the law, not with how he's applying it," Ewing says.
But would she cause a stink if it was a Republican?
"Um, no, because I think the system works for both sides of the aisle," she says. "I'm not one to stir up ethics because I think both sides push the envelope to the max."
Dallas County Republican Party chair Jonathan Neerman questions whether The Bridge offers catering services to other clients, saying his understanding of campaign finance law is that paying for services from family members is acceptable only if those same services are provided to the public. He also says he understands the law to restrict payments for maintenance and lawn care if the campaign is merely renting space, and any utility payments cannot extend to the entire building.
"I don't know what to say," he says when asked about specific expenditures by Watkins. "It's res ipsa loquitur -- it speaks for itself."
Neerman says these reports are made public for a reason, and even if the TEC and AG don't act, there's another way to send a message to Watkins that his use of campaign money is unacceptable.
"The public can decide they don't want the district attorney, who's using campaign funds to pay for these things, and they can vote against him in November."
Inspect Watkins' reports for yourself on pages 3 to 6.Watkins Report 01-13-06 Watkins Report 02-06-06 Watkins Report 02-24-06 Watkins Report 07-17-06 Watkins Report 10-10-06 Watkins Report 10-30-06 Watkins Report 01-16-07 Watkins Report 07-16-07 Watkins Report 01-15-08 Watkins Report 07-10-08 Watkins Report 01-15-09 Watkins Report 07-15-09 Watkins Report 01-14-10
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.