Sunday, November 09, 2014

What goes on at prosecutors' Mardi Gras parties?

It may be just as well Dallas DA Craig Watkins lost his re-election bid. His enemies received new ammunition to use against him last week in the form of an audit assessing how he operated his asset forfeiture fund. Watkins had the audit's release delayed until after election day, and one can see why. The Dallas News' Jennifer Emily reports that there are plenty of unanswered questions to pursue. Her Nov. 7 story opened:
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.

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.
As to the specifics
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.

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

Has it occurred to you that all of Watkins' innocence work was nothing more than political pandering to that part of his constituency that is generally regarded as hostile to law enforcement? Watkins' effort to portray himself as the "anti-district attorney" had a pretty transparent political purpose not unlike that of Huey Long's back when he was governor (and political king) of Louisiana. Watkins' desire to move top lieutenants into Dallas County judgeships and influential party positions, along with the questionable use of his asset seizure funds, is also somewhat reminiscent of behavior exemplified by the Kingfish's political machine. Because of Long's benevolent efforts to toward the poor and disenfranchised, many of the corrupt aspects of his political machine were overlooked by the media and others in position of authority. Sound familiar? At the end of the day, Watkins was nothing more than ego-driven, power seeking wannabe who found a media niche to advance his own personal agenda. Shame on the Innocence Project and others of their ilk for allowing themselves to be used like a cheap hooker to help further Watkins' naked personal ambition. Good riddance!

Anonymous said...

If the new DA has any balls (metaphorically), she'll open up the pile of files the Conviction Integrity Unit has been sitting on for the past 8 years, free the wrongfully convicted and prosecute those attorneys and State actors that abused their authority (withholding Brady Material, coerced confessions, lying snitches, fraudulent forensics, etc.)

Unknown said...

It's tragic that so many public officials - even the ones with agendas we might agree with - can't help themselves once they're given a little bit of rope and a little bit of power.

Sounds like maybe the forfeiture fund is flawed. I mean, nothing about the whole concept has ever seemed right to me.

Anonymous said...

Arent we citizens the real fools? We give this politicians(DA's) unfettered powers then get shocked when they act like politicians (corrupt). The only solution is prosecutorial reform

Anonymous said...

at 6:32am,
You are correct. It would be nice if reform would hit the pocketbook of local government-counties, for failure to audit or oversee abusive spending. AND with hold any state funding the county(s) receive until corrective action has been taken.
For many years Prosecutors have benefited from an unwritten gentleman's agreement with local government to use its influence to protect prosecutors and even help them get elected. In return prosecutors are very reluctant to act on violations of open meetings acts, and corruption at local government level. It is why you may see both TDCA and TAC combining forces opposing legislation that would lead to reform.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

$47,500 settlement

aka: $47,000 bribery

I'm ashamed of Craig Watkins for knowingly & willingly
Cherry-Picking-for-Justice on behalf of a certain segment of the wronged community all based on the 'type' of evidence & ones zip code. Doing so, while actively ignoring those with highly vettable claims showing not only 100% innocence (being 100% Not Guilty) but ample proof of police, prosecutorial & bench related criminal activity of the Rs he just replaced.

He had the opportunity to address the historically and systematically ignored claims along side the DNA & Death Row horror stories and simply blew it off and continued to concentrate on the easy peezy claims, where science, students and Technicians did the work for him and he took credit. He ignored every single case forwarded to his so-called Conviction Integrity Unit that was: devoid of DNA, not Death Row related and the claimant just happened to be classified as Caucasian. He wanted nothing to do with them despite the wrong doer being the Republican DA he ousted. Don't believe it, just ask PNG: of Texas, Public Hero - Mrs. Audrey White, and the President of the Chicago Innocence Project that championed a public call to assist her in her endeavors by asking him to consider re-opening her travesty of justice bestowed upon her via: a Fake jury trial with all of the bells & whistles.

There's plenty of shame to go around folks. Mrs. Pat Lycos (the first female DA in Harris County) created 'her' version of a Post Conviction Integrity Unit, only to Cherry-Pick-for-Justice as well. She also ignored claims that failed to exhaust all appeals prior to applying for assistance (basically anyone that plea bargained and / or was on probation at time of arrest on a new unrelated charge and / or had a sell-out / or Fake CDL and / or Fake jury trial. Don't believe it, just ask me, I was one of the very first to apply, only to be told that they never received it and besides, I didn't qualify. The exact words the Texas Board of Pardons & Paroles (Clemency Section 'goofballs' used on me when I applied for a Full Pardon - for / based on innocence and a Regular Full Pardon.

In closing: the D's campaigned on change and went on to do good things for a minute that concerned a fragment of those affected by the Republican Railroad, only to show their true colors as if they forgot that we all are watching them. Fake-ass mofos, don't let the door(s) hit you on the way out of Texas and may you choke on surplus beads and pubic hairs. And, I pray that Mrs. Susan Hawk keeps her word and expands the Post Conviction Unit's work to include doing away with Cherry-Picking-for-Justice and getting off the Plea Bargains for all gravy train.

Don't hold your breath though, she's a member of both gangs and just might have put a spell on everyone. Why else would both life-long Ds vote for an R? I predict Playboy will court her for the 2015 DA Calendar.


Anonymous said...

"Has it occurred to you that all of Watkins' innocence work was nothing more than political pandering to that part of his constituency that is generally regarded as hostile to law enforcement?"

Of course. But the results are still a good thing.

Ryan Paige said...

Watkins unwillingness to prosecute the Dallas County Constables who had been accused of wrongdoing (and then having a fight with the Commissioner's Court when they decided to hire someone to investigate since the D.A. wasn't doing it) was a relatively early peek into Watkins' strange ethics.

But whether the good changes he made were for political gain or whatever, he still deserves some credit for doing them.

Anonymous said...

@12:06, 2:54-

Watkins campaigned in 2006 that he would prosecute those attorneys who withheld evidence to gain wrongful convictions (Brady Violations).

Not a single prosecutor was charged.

You don't get kudos for not doing your job.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

"Of course. But the results are still a good thing."

Of course Jason. But, as a lawyer, surely you understand that when the 'results' only affect the minority of claimants (personally chosen to receive post conviction assistance), you are guilty of ignoring, in which impacts the true amount of victims of the system. When the winners of positive results are shown to be of the same race and their key(s) to freedom and a cleared name are tied to the same type of evidence and / or type of sentence, it goes without saying that the game was 'Rigged' w/ a side of discrimination.

Who gives a shit if he did it for political, racial, or personal bias - the facts remain the same and become a part of Texas's historical & systematic past. Had he done the right thing from the jump (all inclusive letting the evidence provided by all applicants speak for itself), I can assure you that he'd still be DA and declared a Public Hero and nominated for a much higher calling by: R's, D's & fake-ass Inbetweeners alike. Sadly, he as joined the ranks of those shown to have participated in corruption & cover-ups simply by ignoring pre-vetted claims that didn't qualify due to his Unit's 'Rules' & 'Qualifications' placed on applicants.

Rules & Qualifications that strangely mirror those in place at so-called innocence projects, legal clinics, Post Conviction Integrity Units & the Clemency Section. All of which actively discriminate as to whom qualifies for post conviction assistance considerations. When you rig the the post conviction integrity game, don't be surprised to hear me call - Bullshit.


*Folks, Jason is one of the good guys that just happened to be in need of clarification regarding the 'results' of Cherry-Picking-for-Justice. Don't hesitate to visit his law blawg when time allows.
*And K.A., has a good point and qualifies for a conversation leading to the end of free-money that's just waiting to be spent by those in charge of the account. C'mon, parties & beads could be code for coke & hookers for all we know?

Anonymous said...

seriously?!? you let a great d.a. go over something as trivial as mardi gras beads?! you all should be ashamed of yourselves. but no doubt your not. im sure all the people who could've benefitted from his help and now wont get it probably couldn't care 2 shakes of a rats ass about mardi gras beads and a fender bender. have you never heard the saying "learn to pick your battles"?! so maybe he got a little carried away. so quietly reprimand him and keep an eye on him. his heart is in the right place, id say WAY more so then most. so im certain he'd probably see to the error of his way. besides who said he was automatically guilty just because of popular public belief?! geeze like when has the public ever gotten it wrong?! that man is a saint, ok, perhaps maybe with a slightly crooked wing, but a saint none the less, with all that he's done to help right the wrongs of what was obviously a very flawed justice system in Dallas. and what of those that contributed to all the injustice that surely had a common denominator somewhere down the line? what became of them? oh those corrupt police officers, prosecutors & or judges involved in putting the wrongfully in jail they get a pass?! but lets get rid of the guy who was able to bring Dallas back to the side of respectability over mardi gras beads???!! Yeah okay. that's fair. really nice. I love the city of Dallas, and there are a lot of good police there now, but a lot of that has to do with Craig Watkins. so I hope all those who helped take him down sleep real well in their filth at night and here's hoping that they do it in some other city. Dallas needs more people like Craig Watkins and way the heck less like the back-slappin low lives who saw to the end of Craig Watkins and the hopes of many who could've benefitted from his help.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

For the record, 8/25, the post did mention that, "The accident settlement is a bigger deal."

More importantly, all of this came out AFTER voters ousted him; it wasn't because of this stuff but other transgressions that the public (really quite quickly) turned on him. Much of the criticism was fair, IMO, some of it was not; folks began piling on toward the end.

I'm glad for Craig Watkins tenure. He accomplished a lot and moved the ball on innocence issues in important ways which have been influential in DA offices across the country. But in the end it's hard to avoid the impression that Watkins brought most of his troubles on himself. He'd still be DA if he'd pursued corruption as diligently as wrongful convictions, avoided the appearance of self dealing, and was a tad less arrogant in his interactions with just about everybody. Hard to fly with a "crooked wing."