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How's the Dallas County D-A Doing? Depends on Who You Ask

BJ Austin

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins is expected in court Thursday morning for a hearing on alleged prosecutorial misconduct. He was subpoenaed to appear last month, but defied the order saying he was in his office, but too ill to appear. That was just the latest in a string of controversies for Watkins, who has been a lightning rod from the start.

After his election in 2006, Watkins immediately made a national name for himself by establishing a conviction integrity unit and launching a string of nearly three dozen exonerations of wrongly convicted inmates from Dallas County.

That will likely be Watkins’ legacy, but so will shouting matches with Dallas County Commissioners over the budget and other issues.

Watkins fought with commissioners over an investigation of two constables,  fellow  Democrats.  A majority of commissioners accused Watkins of refusing to investigate alleged corruption. The constables were later indicted after Watkins appointed a special prosecutor.

And, just this week Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott blasted Watkins for what Abbott called a sweetheart deal given a Dallas dentist accused of Medicaid fraud.  Watkins’ office says the Attorney General, also investigating the fraud, was not blindsided by the deal, and calls the comments political.

Dallas County GOP Chairman Wade Emmert says Watkins’ combative style raises questions about character and leadership.

“For his political enemies, there are serious repercussions, " Emmert said.  "For example, Republicans who went to the election night party in 2010, he was re-elected and the next week he fired all those who attended.”

Watkins’ office denied the firings were political.  Dallas County Democratic Party Chair Darlene Ewing defends Watkins. She says there’s no doubt he shook things up when he moved into the D-A’s office.

“I think he’s such a 180 from historically what our D-A’s have been that everybody’s like, this guy is out there," Ewing said. "But I think it’s just a different approach.”

Ewing says in addition to the DNA exonerations, Watkins changed the office to an open file system – giving defense attorneys access to prosecutors’ evidence. She says that was a big change that led to more plea bargains which moved cases through the courts and reduced the jail population.

In Thursday's misconduct hearing, Watkins is accused of indicting Hunt Oil heir Al Hill III for mortgage fraud as a favor to campaign contributor Lisa Blue, who was locked in a court battle with Hill over millions in legal fees.

Wade Emmert says it's another example of trouble in the D-A's office.

“He makes odd decisions about how he runs his office; who he chooses to investigate; who he chooses not to investigate," Emmert said.  "And then he holds himself to a completely different standard than he would try to hold others to.”  

Darlene Ewing says Watkins does what he thinks is right on his mission to make the justice system more fair.     

“I think he as a defense attorney and coming from part of our community that didn’t always perceive the justice system as fair, that he really believed he could get in there and make a difference," Ewing said.  "Yeah, he has stepped on some toes and he has probably put his foot in his mouth occasionally.  But he’s made a difference. He’s changed the climate."

A spokesperson for Watkins says the District Attorney is not doing interviews this week on advice of his attorney.

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.