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Not A Good Day For DA Craig Watkins: Contempt Charges And Case Dismissed

BJ Austin

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins could face jail time and a fine for contempt of court. Judge Lena Levario found Watkins in contempt after he refused to answer questions in a mortgage fraud case, and later dismissed the charges.

Judge Levario told Craig Watkins he was required to answer questions about the indictment of Al Hill III on mortgage fraud charges.

Hill, an heir to the Hunt Oil fortune, claimed Watkins brought the charges as a favor to his friend and campaign contributor Lisa Blue.  At the time of the indictment, she was suing Hill over millions in legal fees.

Watkins took the stand, but refused to answer any questions about telephone conversations he had with Lisa Blue. He called them privileged information, protected from disclosure by state law.

Judge Levario rejected that argument and told Watkins he must answer.

“Well, Mr. Watkins, you’re ordered to answer the question," Judge Levario said leaning over the bench toward the witness stand.

“Judge, I’m going to continue to assert the privilege,” Watkins responded.

“I’m holding you in contempt,” Judge Levario quickly replied.

“I understand,” said Watkins, who was then dismissed and left the courtroom.

A different judge will hear the contempt case against Watkins. That’s the procedure for an officer of the court in contempt situations. Judge Levario, after hearing testimony from Assistant District Attorneys dismissed the fraud charge against Hill. The judge said Watkins’ refusal to testify weighed in her decision.

Assistant DA Russell Wilson says Watkins had to stand firm on the issue of privilege for himself and District Attorneys statewide. They will appeal.

“Because mortgage fraud, whether it’s conducted by wealthy people who are manipulating the system through a wealthy line of lawyers and a dog and pony show or by the poor people that we see up and down our hallways on a daily basis, they will be prosecuted if they violate criminal law,” an emotional Wilson said at a news conference after the case dismissal. 

Lawyers for Hill called the dismissal a gratifying end to an investigation into prosecutorial misconduct and corruption. In a statement, attorney John Hueston praised the judge for “affirming that District Attorney Watkins is not above the law.” 

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.