Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins came under criticism Friday for his secretive handling of a 2013 car crash in which he rear-ended another vehicle on his way to a speaking engagement at the Park City Club.
Watkins paid the driver of the other vehicle nearly $50,000 and shelled out more than $11,000 to a repair shop using money from the forfeiture fund — cash from seized assets — that he controls. Part of the settlement required the driver to agree not to tell the media about the crash or he would have to pay Watkins — not the DA’s office or the county — $40,500.
Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell, the court’s lone Republican, said he’s concerned whether the funds were legally used and he wants a state investigation.
“It is almost like he was trying to buy silence with public funds,” Cantrell said of Watkins, a Democrat. “We are going to need to turn this over to the state attorney general.” ...
Generally, the settling of legal claims or lawsuits must be approved by the commissioner’s court, so it’s unclear whether the Watkins agreement is binding since it wasn’t approved by commissioners. For that reason, Cantrell said he believes Watkins entered into a contract on behalf of Dallas County without any legal authority to do so.This may or may not be legal - entering into legal settlements without notifying the commissioners court seems dicey to this non-attorney - but either way it doesn't pass the smell test. It sounds like Watkins' plan is to double down and insist that using asset forfeiture funds this way was kosher. That wouldn't be my strategy at a time when the feds are already investigating. An auto-repair guy told the paper the FBI asked him not to speak to anyone until they'd interviewed him. He doesn't have to admit wrongdoing, but it would help Watkins in his PR battle at least to acknowledge the bad optics.
“We never saw the claim, we never knew the lawsuit was filed and we never knew anything about it,” he said. “The use of those funds out of the forfeiture account were clearly non-law enforcement uses.”
But [DA Office spokeswoman Debbie] Denmon said commissioners didn’t need to be informed because Watkins did not spend county money.
County employees are required to fill out a form when they are in an accident. Watkins did not fill out a form. Instead, the DA’s office sent the accident report to the county administrator. Denmon said the DA’s office believed that it acted properly.
“It’s more detailed and by the trooper,” she said, and not Watkins’ version of the events.
From a campaign perspective, the worst part for Watkins - who faces Republican Susan Hawk in the November election - is that the report came out completely free of his opponent's fingerprints. Her campaign issued a "no comment" and let others handle the front-line assault. So the media narrative isn't that this is a campaign attack, though now Hawk's campaign can pick it up and bludgeon Watkins with it for the next three months. Watkins may still win anyway, but this news won't help him.
MORE: Here, here, and here from Tanya Eiserer at WFAA-TV who first broke the story.