GOP Chair Jonathan Neerman Suggests Judicial Candidates May Be Hiding Use of Tanya Watkins as Consultant

While combing through the recent campaign finance reports filings due Friday, we took notice of the one turned in by former Republican Judge David Kelton, who lost his robe in 2006 to Carlos Cortez, switched parties and is now battling Dale Tillery and Baltasar Cruz in the Democratic primary for the opportunity to unseat Dallas County Civil District Court Judge James Stanton. Turns out there wasn't an expenditure for Grass Root Strategies, the consulting firm of Tanya Watkins, the wife of District Attorney Craig Watkins, who we heard on good authority has been working on Kelton's campaign.

Rather than finding a payout to Watkins, there was an expenditure of $7,500 on December 9 to Palancas Consulting. However, we searched the business records of Palancas and found its status as "forfeited existence" effective August 7, 2009.

To clear things up, we called Kelton, who was the subject of a nasty press release from State Democratic Executive Committee member David Bradley, and asked if Watkins was in fact his consultant. He told us that after considering Watkins, he decided instead to use former Dallas County Democratic Party chair Susan Hays, and then he named Palancas as her company after searching for his paperwork.

Later in our conversation, we brought up Watkins's name again, asking what he thought of the controversy surrounding her gig as a consultant considering her hubby is the DA and a top Democrat in the county. He said it has "probably been overblown" and then added, "Susan may very well be in touch with Tanya on my election campaign, but I've hired Susan, and I don't care who Susan uses. If she wants to use Tanya to help, that's fine with me."

Kelton told us that as a civil judge, he'd have no say-so in the criminal courts, so he doesn't have an issue with using Watkins at all. "I don't know what the wife of the district attorney has by way of influence, and certainly none in the civil courts," he says. "Civil lawyers probably find the criminal courts to be as foreign to their type of practice as most criminal lawyers do to the civil courts. There would certainly be a complete disconnect there."

At this point, Kelton appeared to be defending the use of Watkins, yet he distanced from her at the beginning of our conversation. So had he consulted with her?

"Oh yeah, I've talked with Tanya, sure."

So she is working on your campaign through Susan?

[Long pause. Sigh.] "Is she working on my campaign? I think Susan has asked her to help, yes."

This concerned Dallas County Republican Party chair Jonathan Neerman, who's been critical of Watkins in the past.

"The whole idea of public reporting is to allow the public the opportunity to see how campaign dollars are being spent and where the money is going," he tells Unfair Park. "There's no better disinfectant than the public spotlight.

"If candidates are intentionally not reporting the ultimate recipient of campaign dollars might be, then that's a problem, and if that in fact is what candidates are doing here, it's a problem and the public should know about it.

"And it doesn't matter if it's Tanya Watkins or Tanya Smith or Tanya Jones, the point is that if this is an instance -- and I don't know that this is the case -- where they're intentionally using a middle person and then subcontracting out to somebody who's already been in the press and gotten some negative coverage for it by the pubic, then that is the problem."

Susan Hays, a partner at Geisler Hays, says she provides legal and ethical work for Kelton, along with judges Jim Jordan and Mike Snipes. It's news to her that Palancas Consulting is inactive.

"It's quite possible I missed turning in an annual report as busy as I have been," she says.

Hays subcontracts some of her consulting work to others, noting that she subbed the grassroots side out to Watkins because she doesn't have time to do that kind of work.

"David retained me and I recommended picking up her, and we structured it as a subcontract instead of a direct relationship," she says.

Although she stresses that consultants regularly subcontract work, it's an issue she's raised to the Texas Ethics Commission.

"When you're reimbursing a candidate, volunteer or staff, there are very specific rules on how you report that, but they haven't done it for consultants, which I think they need to do," she says.

She scoffs at Neerman's attempt to insinuate that she is helping mask payments to Watkins, pointing out that Snipes received a separate payment from Grass Root Strategies ($4,500 on August 7) in addition to the expenditures to her company ($15,000 total from June 1 to December 1) on the recent filing, and Jordan had a payment to Grass Root Strategies in a previous report on April 9 ($3,000) in addition to the recent payments to her company ($15,000 total from June 1 to December 1).

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten