Greg Abbott Shoots Down Local Rep's Call for Independent Watkins Investigation

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott rejected a request from Republican state Representative Jason Villalba to investigate Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins' use of asset forfeiture funds to make good on a February 2013 traffic accident Watkins caused. Abbott told Villalba that he can't initiate an investigation based solely on a request from a legislator.

That doesn't mean Villalba is giving up just yet.

Debbie Denmon, spokeswoman for Watkins, says the district attorney was driving a county SUV to a law enforcement gathering to give a speech. On the Dallas North Tollway, Watkins glanced at his speech, Denmon says, and rear-ended another vehicle. Repairs to both vehicles, as well as the other driver's medical bills, were paid with forfeiture funds Watkins controls.

"District Attorney Watkins' behavior demonstrates a complete disregard for the policies put in place to protect the use of these funds. As a sworn official whose duty is to uphold the law, his blatant disregard for the rules that govern his office is just unacceptable," Villalba said in a press release, which was followed less than an hour later by a statement from Judge Susan Hawk, Watkins' Republican opponent as he seeks reelection in November.

Villalba has stated repeatedly over the last week that he disapproves of partisan investigations while affirming his support for Governor Rick Perry, who was indicted last week on charges he abused his office.

Hawk says that even if Watkins' actions weren't criminal, they were at least reckless. Hawk says she regrets that Dallasites have "have to waste the time and energy of any law enforcement office to investigate our own district attorney."

State law allows forfeiture funds to be used as Watkins did, Denmon says. Watkins used forfeiture money for two reasons: The wreck was his fault and he wanted to make the other driver whole, and he didn't want to use taxpayer money to pay for his mistake. Watkins' use of forfeiture assets has been audited each year he's been in office, she says, and nothing improper has ever been discovered.

"[The forfeiture statute] is a broad statute and it does not say anywhere that you cannot use it for this," Denmon says. "When you say you can use it for vehicles and equipment, and you can use it for legal fees and court costs and related costs, this fits within that."

Mark Littlefield, a consultant for Watkins' re-election bid says both Villalba's proposed investigation and Hawk's response were purely political.

"It's not the first time that [Hawk] has made false accusations about Watkins and typically that's just campaign stuff. It happens," Littlefield says, "but in this county, with these voters and specifically with this office, I think that someone who will do anything to get in office and will make false accusations, that specifically is not something that Dallas voters want to see in their DA. We've had a bad history with that and we don't want to see it again."

Forfeiture laws aren't the easiest topic to understand, but it's imperative that a district attorney does, because the use of the money is so scrutinized, Littlefield says.

"A Republican state rep or a district judge who does more political stuff than she does anything else, yeah I'm not surprised they don't know about forfeiture accounts and they make mistakes when they talk about it and pass judgement. They're not talking about the law; they're talking about politics," he says.

Watkins has been transparent throughout the process, Littlefield claims.

"Someone who stops, gets out of the car, checks on the victim, talks to the cops and says 'Man, I have messed up, I was on my phone, this is my fault,' someone who takes the police report to the county administrator, the one who sends a letter to the county administrator as soon as they figure out a claim has been filed. If Craig Watkins is trying to cover up this accident, he's doing a piss-poor job of it," he says.

"Piss-poor" might be a bit harsh, considering that WFAA first broke news of Watkins' accident and his use forfeiture funds last week, about 18 months after the accident happened. As for transparent, WFAA also reported that Watkins' settlement with the driver of the other vehicle included a secrecy clause that would have required the man to pay back $40,000 if he talked to the press. That clause was included in the settlement by mistake, a lawyer in Watkins' office now says. The district attorney also failed to follow policy for reporting an accident involving county property.

Villalba told The Dallas Morning News Tuesday afternoon that he wants the Texas state auditor to look into the matter and hopes that office will refer the matter to the attorney general.

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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young