Former DA Craig Watkins Sued in Federal Court For Alleged Public Corruption | Dallas Observer


Oil Tycoon Heir Albert G. Hill III Accuses former DA Craig Watkins of Corruption

An attorney for Albert G. Hill III, the great-grandson of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, is asking judges in Denton County to convene a special court of inquiry to investigate what he claims is a criminal conspiracy assisted by former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, four of his office's investigators, Assistant...
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An attorney for Albert G. Hill III, the great-grandson of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, is asking judges in Denton County to convene a special court of inquiry to investigate what he claims is a criminal conspiracy assisted by former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, four of his office's investigators, Assistant District Attorney Donna Strittmatter and others.

The request is the latest turn in a long-running, convoluted legal war between Hill and other heirs to the vast estate left behind by Hunt, once considered the richest man in America.

Denton County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Jamie Beck says a court of inquiry differs from a grand jury in that it’s held in a public forum. She says the prosecutor’s office usually helps unless the inquiry relates to the DA's office. Witnesses are called, and subpoenas are issued. At the conclusion of the court of inquiry, a judge may issue arrest warrants if there is enough evidence of a crime.

But a court of inquiry is a rare occurrence in Denton County. “I’ve been here in Denton County for [more than] 22 years, and we’ve never had one,” Beck says.

Hill’s attorney Ty Clevenger says he turned to Denton County in part because judges in Dallas are Democrats and Watkins still holds clout in the party.

Watkins couldn’t be reached for comment.

At the heart of the request is Hill's claim that Watkins' office filed bogus indictments against Hill and his wife, Erin, at the behest of Hill's family and in part to pressure him into settling a dispute over fees with lawyers who once represented Hill in his fight over the Hunt family fortune.

After the indictments were issued, Strittmatter and the four investigators — Hoyt Hoffman, Mo Brown, Randall Thompson and Edith Santos — entered Hill's Highland Park home and unknowingly set off the residential burglary alarm in the middle of the afternoon. Clevenger said the trustee of the Albert Hill Trust, David Pickett, also participated. Hill and his wife were in Atlanta at the time.

According to the lawsuit Hill filed in federal court in Dallas earlier this year, they were looking for leverage against the couple.

The Highland Park Police Department responded to the burglary alarm shortly after it sounded Feb. 21, 2013. Strittmatter and the investigators told police that they had entered the home pursuant to a search warrant, but they didn't have a search warrant signed by a judge.

“Mr. Hill might have never learned about the break-in but for the fact that a friend’s wife witnessed the event and notified him,” Clevenger wrote in the federal lawsuit. “Hill discovered that Watkins had used his investigators as an armed goon squad to solve a burgeoning legal and political problem.”

Clevenger filed the original federal complaint against Watkins and others on Hill’s behalf in February at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas in Dallas. He amended the lawsuit in June. In the lawsuit, he claimed the former Dallas County prosecutor had used his “armed goon squad” because he had been bribed by Hill’s family members and their cohorts to frame Hill and ensure his defeat in various ongoing civil lawsuits in state and federal court.

“But that scheme was beginning to unravel, and Mr. Watkins was desperate to cover his tracks,” Clevenger wrote.

The former Dallas County DA obtained indictments on the Hills in March 2011 on what Clevenger called “bogus charges of mortgage fraud” that alleged Hill and his wife took out a $500,000 loan on their house despite the fact that they owned only a 20 percent share of the home, while a trust benefiting his father owned 80 precent. The DA's office was tipped about the loan by Mike Lynn, an attorney for Hill's father Albert Hill Jr., whom Hill had sued over the Hunt estate. Then a trustee from Hill's grandmother's trust filed a complaint with the DA's office, the lawsuit said.

The Hills were indicted despite the fact that the loan was repaid and the bank that loaned the money did not seek criminal charges.

The mortgage cases began falling apart, Clevenger claimed, so Watkins sent members of his department into the Hills' home after a state district judge sought to compel Watkins' testimony about his prosecution of the Hills on Feb. 14, 2013. Watkins declined to testify.

“The problem is when you got crooked judges and a crooked DA everywhere you turn, you can’t make any headway,” Clevenger told the Observer by phone in late June. “It’s like we’ve been operating in a third-world country.”

The Dallas County District Attorney’s Office told the Observer that it was operating under consent when it sent four investigators and one assistant district attorney into Hill’s home in February 2013. “We were given consent by a person who had the authority to do so,” Mike Snipes, first assistant district attorney, said Monday. “It was a consent search.”

Snipes wouldn’t identify who gave consent but said it was a legitimate search.

Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson's office is defending Watkins and others in the case. She entered a motion to dismiss Clevenger's lawsuit in early June claiming that there was no conspiracy to indict the Hills. Her motion also says that since a ruling on whether to dismiss the mortgage fraud indictment against Hill was still pending in a state appeals court, the federal court lacked authority to hear the suit. The indictment against Erin Hill was dismissed.

In his June 26 court of inquiry letter to eight Denton County district judges, Clevenger said he had given up hope of getting justice from Dallas County officials, including Johnson, a Republican. He claims the four investigators and assistant district attorney who entered his client's’ home still work under Johnson. “Not only has Ms. Johnson kept some of them on her staff, she is defending them and Mr. Watkins in federal court,” he wrote.

“At the same time, [Johnson] has accepted large campaign donations from my client’s estranged relatives,” Clevenger added. “That follows the same pattern ... regarding Mr. Watkins. The federal complaint also sets forth evidence that both the federal and state judiciary in Dallas County have been tainted by the multi-billion-dollar racketeering enterprise.”

"A lot of powerful people in Dallas County are on my family's payroll, and the public needs to know just how deep that corruption runs."

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Hill put it this way in a July 6 email response to questions: "A lot of powerful people in Dallas County are on my family's payroll, and the public needs to know just how deep that corruption runs."

Hill’s story is an old but familiar one: a child versus a parent for a share of the family trust. But in Hill’s case, it involved a grandmother, Margaret Hunt Hill, who, Clevenger said, originally intended to leave her money to her grandchildren and not her children.

After his grandmother's death in June 2007, Hill asked for an accounting of his interest. The more questions he asked, the more hostile the response from relatives. “It was a pretty clear signal that something was wrong,” Clevenger said.

Litigation followed later that year as Hill sued his father, leading the younger Hill to discover in 2009 that not only did his grandmother want her grandchildren to have the money but also that Hill’s great-grandfather had created a trust for Hill shortly after he was born in 1970. The trust, Clevenger claims, left most of Hunt’s assets to his great-grandson. They included an oil company bought by Exxon in September 2008. Hill disputed the sale because his elders were implementing “a scheme to liquidate the trust's assets and prematurely distribute hundreds of millions of dollars,” Clevenger said.

Clevenger said in the lawsuit that after H.L. Hunt died in 1974, Hill’s elders began parceling out Hunt’s fortune among themselves, acting as if Hill’s birth trust did not exist. “Among other things, Mr. Hill’s relatives and their allies lavished millions of dollars on socialites, opinion makers and public officials in Dallas, including Mr. Watkins and various local judges, in an effort to protect themselves from the consequences of their crimes,” he wrote.

Hill won a battle against his father in federal litigation over his grandmother’s trust on Feb. 18, 2010, when a federal judge found that Hill’s father had testified falsely and, in bad faith, submitted evidence in connection with the litigation. Four days later, Lynn, Hill's father's attorney, delivered a memo to the Dallas DA's office that listed various crimes, such as mortgage fraud committed by Hill and his wife.

“I’m going to keep looking until I can find a judge who is willing to do the right thing and start sitting on doorsteps; that’s what I'm going to do.”

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Lynn’s law partner, Jeffrey Tillotson, donated a total of $48,500 in three contributions to Watkins’ 2010 re-election campaign. Clevenger says that Hill’s father also made large donations to Watkins’ campaign. Eight other family trust attorneys also contributed a total of $15,000 to the former prosecutor’s campaign.

Hill’s litigation against his father was settled in May 2010. But his woes weren’t over. Two months later, his counsel withdrew its representation because the firm was representing Exxon in the purchase of the Hunt family oil company. In October 2010, Hill's former attorneys filed a federal complaint claiming the Hills owed them $50 million in attorney fees. The Hills were unable to testify because of the felony indictments, and the judge, who also had a stake in Exxon, awarded their former attorneys more than $30 million. It was later reduced to $21.9 million.

In the interim, Hill’s former attorney Lisa Blue, who received $7 million from the October 2010 settlement over attorney fees, called Watkins 37 times, 14 in March 2011 when the Hills were indicted. Hill suspected a conspiracy ginned up to use the indictments to pressure him into settling the fee dispute. Blue gave a court-ordered deposition in June 2011 and claimed that she had spoken with Watkins by phone on only two occasions, one of which occurred before the indictment, according to court documents. Blue said she told Watkins that she didn’t “represent the Hills anymore, so it would be inappropriate for her to talk about it.” When asked if they had spoken on any other occasion, she claimed, “Not that I recall.”

Johnson, the current DA, argued that the contact between Blue and Watkins is a purported conspiracy and "amounted to nothing more than supposition and speculation."

Hill claimed the FBI is investigating the case and that he and his wife are cooperating with agents. (The FBI does not comment on potential investigations.) He also claimed that the IRS found $380 million in tax fraud in regards to his family. "Craig Watkins is a criminal, and he needs to be held accountable," he wrote in his July 6 email response. "Right now he is being protected by the people who ought to be prosecuting him. The same is true for all of his cronies."

Clevenger began representing Hill last fall to bring Watson and his "cronies" to justice. A 48-year-old East Texan native, he’s known as the “craziest but bravest Texas lawyer” because he’s taken on city council members, federal judges, presidential candidates and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. And he doesn’t plan to give up if he doesn’t get his court of inquiry in Denton County.

“I’m going to keep looking until I can find a judge who is willing to do the right thing and start sitting on doorsteps; that’s what I'm going to do,” he says.
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