An annual audit of Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ forfeiture fund listed more than a dozen expenditures where it is “unclear” if the payments were used for law enforcement purposes as required by state statutes.As to the specifics
The examination of the forfeiture fund, conducted by county auditor Virginia Porter, is slated for discussion Tuesday by county commissioners.
Debbie Denmon, Watkins’ spokeswoman, referred questions about the audit Friday to prosecutor Lincoln Monroe, who frequently approves forfeiture fund payments. Monroe could not be reached for comment.
Watkins, a Democrat, lost his bid for a third term Tuesday to Republican Susan Hawk. She along with others have criticized how Watkins has used the forfeiture fund, which consists of money and assets seized in criminal investigations.
Watkins, though, has defended its usage, claiming that he has broad authority over the fund, which typically has hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The audit was originally supposed to be filed days before the election. But the DA’s office obtained an extension, according to county documents.
The largest potentially questionable expenditure is a $47,500 settlement the district attorney’s office made with a man Watkins rear-ended in February 2013 on the Dallas North Tollway. Such settlements typically go through county commissioners. The settlement to the driver and his attorney included requiring that they could not talk about the crash or their agreement.So it's okay to use asset forfeiture funds to defend against prosecutorial misconduct claims but not for office swag, Mardi Gras beads, or for settling personal civil litigation without approval from the commissioners court.
Among the other items Porter listed as “unclear” were the purchase of $683 worth of Mardi Gras beads for the community prosecution unit, $1,935 in lapel pins, cufflinks and wristbands, fees and T-shirts for the district attorney football league and parade fees.
[County Auditor Virginia] Porter did find that Watkins’ spending of $14,000 for outside counsel was in compliance. He used the money on attorney fees after he was held in contempt for refusing to testify at a hearing in March 2012 where he was accused of prosecutorial misconduct. He was later acquitted.
Mardi Gras beads? Really? One would have thought after the meme about the Texas DA who bought a margarita machine with asset forfeiture funds went viral (even Jon Oliver recently did a bit on it), DAs would use a bit more discretion. The accident settlement is a bigger deal, but the idea of a prosecutors' Mardis Gras party really is too juicy for pundits to pass up punchlines ("Ladies in the misdemeanor section, show us your tits!") if the issue dragged out for long.
I'm not a lawyer, but in the end I'd guess the broad statutory language regarding a DA's discretion over spending from asset forfeiture funds - along with the fact that, once he's out of office, there will be little political point in pursuing him - means Watkins will likely face no real consequences over this. Had he won, this emerging, potential scandal could have dominated DA office politics for the next year or two. Out of office (especially if he eschews running again), there's not much they can do to him. With the FBI reportedly sniffing around the settlement episode, voters' rejection may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
In many ways I feel bad for Craig Watkins, whose pioneering work with my employers at the Innocence Project of Texas on DNA exonerations promoted him to national fame during his first term. His office modeled open file policies, even for habeas corpus writs, well before the Michael Morton Act. And his agents at the Legislature supported most of Texas' recent innocence reforms.
But Watkins was the author of his own undoing, felled by hubristic ambitions to become kingmaker in local Democratic Party politics. I'm grateful for all he did to change the terms of debate in Texas around DNA exonerations and innocence issues. But the part of me that worked for 14 years as a political consultant understands full well why voters showed him the door. A regrettable outcome after a promising start.
Good luck Craig, in whatever you do next.