As Watkins is quick to point out, if anyone is going to investigate allegations that county constables broke the law, it's going to be him and his office. By statute, that's his call, and he won't be pushed into anything by any county commissioners or outside critics. No special prosecutors or Attorney General's Office busybodies need apply.
So get to work, Mr. DA.
The Defenbaugh report relies on the sworn affidavits of 23 constable's deputies and clerks and other county employees, all obtained without subpoena power. The absence of subpoena power, you'll recall, was one of Watkins' many specific objections to County Judge Jim Foster and other commissioners deciding to hire Defenbaugh to conduct a civil investigation into Cortes and Precinct 1 Constable Derick Evans.
Watkins correctly notes that only his office had such subpoena power and either was – or wasn't – working its own investigation into the same allegations raised by Cortes and Evans employees. Sadly, it was next to impossible to get a straight answer from the district attorney, which is what forced the commissioners to act. Remember, these allegations supposedly hit Watkins' office in June; commissioners didn't vote to hire Defenbaugh until Sept. 1. (His preliminary report on Evans is not yet complete.)
Anyone who chooses to read the Defenbaugh report on Cortes will learn that what began as allegations of a shady relationship with a towing company now spirals into accusations of bribery, kickbacks, official oppression against employees and an unusually sweet deal for one of his deputies identified as his "paramour."
All obtained without subpoena power. Imagine that.
Instead of battling commissioners tit-for-tat with lawsuits and fast-and-loose handling of grand jury testimony, Watkins, who again declined last week to discuss the matter, has real work to do now. Since he played the constable situation from the start as a political issue, rather than a criminal case, he now resides in a small box.
The way out is to bring a criminal prosecution. That's about it. Replicate the sworn interviews with Defenbaugh's team to satisfy the standards needed for a criminal trial and use that well-guarded subpoena power to compel other witnesses. It's a shame voters weighing the Cortes and Evans re-election bids in the March 2 primaries won't get an answer in time, but that clearly wasn't the DA's concern.
Still, if Cortes and/or Evans ever face justice, everyone who reads the Defenbaugh report can suspect that Watkins and his office never would have gotten there without a blatant shove from county commissioners.
I differ from the News on just two points. First, perhaps they should be urging acting Northern District US Attorney James Jacks, not Craig Watkins, to look into allegations of public corruption. After all, if the DA wanted to pursue these cases, he'd have done so long before now.
Second, the News accurately says Watkins painted himself into a political box, then declares "The way out is to bring a criminal prosecution." But I don't care how much political trouble he's in, the DA shouldn't pursue prosecutions just to get himself out of a political jam, but only if there's a legitimate case to be made (which from the Defenbaugh report, there appears to be). That's another good argument why the US Attorney should step in; the DA has backed himself into a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't position that threatens to leave a cloud over the matter regardless of the outcome.
Whether this feud between the DA and the Commissioners Court is as petty and ego-driven as it appears from the outside, or whether there's some darker, subterranean reason Watkins wouldn't pursue these cases, I cannot say. Going forward, though, Watkins' continued refusal to either act himself, bring in a special prosecutor or seek help from the Attorney General would threaten his long-term credibility in ways that just aren't worth it. Mr. Watkins needs to put the conflict behind him and admit the county judge was right to be concerned about the constables.
The Dallas Observer helpfully supplied a link to the full 92-page report. The constables themselves, of course, are denying every word. I've just skimmed the document, but it alleges overt corruption and abusive employment tactics (especially wringing deputies for campaign assistance) that really do need to be vetted for criminal wrongdoing - particularly allegations of kickbacks from towing contracts. If Watkins won't do it, the acting US Attorney should (or the new one, whenever Obama gets around to appointing them).