GOP County Chair Neerman Cites "Potential Appearance of Impropriety" As DA's Wife Works as Consultant for Judicial Candidates

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With the role of consultants in the city under the microscope because of what we've learned in the Dallas City Hall federal corruption trial, it seemed like a good time to check in on newbie Tanya Watkins, who started Grassroots Strategies in March, seeing how she's the wife of the Dallas County District Attorney and all.

District Judge Susan Hawk (named the Observer's Best Rookie Judge in 2003) says she chose Watkins as her consultant in April after originally seeking prominent Democratic consultant Jeff Dalton and being told his schedule was full. Hawk says she was sold on Watkins's community outreach plan.

"She schedules us at events that we would not know about," Hawk says when asked to describe what duties Watkins performs for her clients. "We wouldn't know about certain events in South Dallas or certain places to go, and she just schedules these events for us, lets us know and then we show up at these events."

Hawk, one of several Republican judges now running as a Democrat, paid Watkins $2,500 in April and then began paying her a $650 monthly fee in June, according to campaign finance reports. If Hawk pays Watkins through October 2010, she'll have received a total of $13,550. She stresses that Watkins isn't directly involved in nabbing her endorsements.

"She doesn't call elected officials and set up appointments -- you have to do that on your own," Hawk says. "So any endorsements that I've gotten from the elected officials here in Dallas County that are Democrats, I've personally had to call on my own. She has not done that for me."

Hawk says she isn't concerned about Watkins's relationship to Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. "I think that she's certainly entitled to have her own business and to have her own career."

However, Dallas County Republican Party chair Jonathan Neerman says that's a "very delicate" position to take. "On the one hand, you don't want to take the position that somehow she's not entitled to her own career -- there's a tinge of sexism to it, and that's not what we're suggesting -- but when she's married to the district attorney, the district attorney is on the ballot next year and the district attorney works day in, day out with the criminal judges downtown -- they share the same building -- there is the potential appearance of impropriety, and that's what they have to be very careful of."

Dallas County Democratic Party chair Darlene Ewing says Watkins has cleared her activity with the Texas Ethics Commission. "She's a strong-minded person and can certainly maintain a firewall with regard to her work and Craig with what he does in the district attorney's office. He has nothing to say about who hires her or the work she's doing."

Hawk says just because Watkins has the connections to set up a meeting for her, there are no guarantees attached to it, prompting us to ask: But don't you think by virtue of being the wife of the DA, she has connections that other people don't?

"I wouldn't necessarily say she has more than say, Jeff Dalton, who's one of the consultants out there," she says. "She doesn't have any more connections than he does from what I see. I mean, it's pretty much even. Because if you look at it, they're pulling in about the same number of candidates."

Ewing says she's heard that Watkins has between 15 and 20 clients, and Dalton has approximately 20. "I guess it shows the skill level that she has. No doubt, she's been out working to get clients."

Neerman outlines what he sees as a potential problem: "If Barbara or Joe Smith calls the Kiwanis Club of Cockrell Hill and says, 'My candidate wants to come visit you,' they may or may not return the call. They may or may not allow the person to come visit. But if it's Tanya Watkins, the wife of the district attorney calling, there's an added advantage there. The question that would be raised is: Is Mrs. Watkins trading on the office of her husband? And that's a big concern, and it should be a concern for the district attorney's office because the district attorney is the one who appears in these judges' courts every day."

It's not any different than Christina Melton Crain, the wife of Nate Crain, "hobnobbing all over the place" when her husband was the county's GOP chair, Ewing says. "She made a living off the Republican judges. Nobody ever cried conflict of interest at that point."

Hawk says she hasn't discussed a potential endorsement from the district attorney with Watkins. "Craig, he never even comes into the discussion."

Neerman says it's an "ethical dilemma" for the district attorney and his wife. "If Toby Shook was the DA and his wife decided to open a consulting shop where she was seeking business from Republican judicial candidates, I would not be very happy about it."

Watkins wouldn't do anything to jeopardize her husband's career or reputation in the district attorney's office, Ewing insists. "She's making a very strong effort to make a separation there because she knew this perception would be out there."

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