Why Dallas County DA Craig Watkins didn’t plead the Fifth
Russell Wilson joined the Dallas County District Attorney’s office as special fields bureau chief in 2011. Today, he heads the Conviction Integrity Unit and oversees the office’s appellate, public integrity, federal and mental health sections. Born in Wiesbaden, Germany, and raised in the Dallas area, he earned a political science degree from the University of Oklahoma and graduated from its College of Law in 1995. Most recently, he has been presenting arguments for District Attorney Craig Watkins, who has faced prosecutorial misconduct allegations for his handling of a criminal indictment against H.L. Hunt’s grandson, Al Hill III. Watkins, a Democrat, has been cited for contempt of court for refusing to testify, amid reports of a federal investigation into his actions. On Thursday, a special prosecutor was appointed in the contempt case. (This is a longer version of the Q&A appearing in Sunday’s Points section.)
Is representing District Attorney Craig Watkins on the Al Hill III-Lisa Blue matter part of your regular, salaried duties or a separate contract situation?
I represent the state of Texas in the State of Texas vs. Albert Hill III. Mr. Watkins is the elected district attorney for Dallas County. I am employed by him, but I am not his personal attorney. My work on the State of Texas vs. Albert Hill III is part of my regular salaried duties; there is no separate contract. The Al Hill III-Lisa Blue matter is a dispute that is pending in federal court, and I am not an attorney of record for any party in the dispute, and Mr. Watkins is not a party to that dispute.
Explain the legal reasoning to allow prosecutors under Watkins to answer at least some questions regarding work product in the Hill case but not the district attorney himself.
In short, I didn’t want to see innocent victims get mowed down with contempt citations. The choice was to have every prosecutor held in contempt and run the risk associated with contempt or have Mr. Watkins bear the burden for the entire office. The threat of contempt is inherently coercive. Donna Strittmatter, Stephanie Martin and Terri Moore are all outstanding attorneys. Each one has a personal life, with friends and family away from the legal battles at the courthouse. They weren’t choosing to testify; they were choosing not to be held in contempt. Their personal interest of avoiding contempt citations were put before the interest of the office in maintaining our work-product privilege.
What was your reaction to Lisa Blue invoking her Fifth Amendment rights at both hearings, despite not being accused of wrongdoing? And why did Watkins not take a similar path, given that the judge insisted he testify?
I didn’t have much of a reaction to Blue’s decision because it had no impact on our fundamental assertion of work-product privilege. In short, if Blue had testified, I would have still been asserting work-product privilege, as we had done in our pleadings.
The judge insisted that four attorneys testify. The problem with this insistence was that it conflicted with the work-product privilege; it had nothing to with the Fifth.
Shortly after state District Judge Lena Levario ruled, your office tweeted: “We clearly disagree with Judge Levario’s dismissal of the Hills fraud case. This is an example of rich people manipulating the system.” Can you explain further the manipulation?
Yes, the focus in the case was driven away from whether Hill III committed the offense of mortgage fraud. An impartial Dallas County grand jury indicted him after a lengthy investigation. Most defendants have to answer to the charges against them in substantive way. Additionally, the concept that it would be permissible to make false statements on a loan application and have your case dismissed without answering as to the falsity of the statements sets a terrible precedent for the everyday citizen in Dallas County. If the concept held true, citizens who could get half-million dollar loans would be exempt from prosecution, while those who could only get $20,000 loans would face harsh punishment.