DALLAS (AP) — Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins refused to appear in court Thursday to answer allegations that his office is pursuing a criminal case against a member of a high-profile Dallas family at the behest of a campaign donor.
Watkins was called to testify Thursday by attorneys for oil fortune heir Al Hill III, who's charged with mortgage fraud. Hill's attorneys argue Dallas attorney Lisa Blue consulted with Watkins repeatedly as the case went before a grand jury. Blue and Hill have been involved in a multimillion-dollar fight over legal fees dating from Hill's long-running battle with his father, Al Hill Jr., over his inheritance.
Hill III is the oldest great-grandson of oil tycoon H.L. Hunt.
Attorneys for Watkins said Thursday he has the right to decide what cases to prosecute. They accuse Hill's team of trying to get around a grand jury indictment and say that forcing Watkins to explain himself would set a bad precedent for future district attorneys.
The hearing was eventually delayed until March 7 after prosecutors told State District Judge Lena Levario that Watkins was too sick to testify.
Levario at first declined to excuse Watkins from court, expressing frustration as prosecutors repeated their arguments unsuccessfully. Eventually, Levario told prosecutors, "We need to get Mr. Watkins down here."
After a break, prosecutor Teresa Snelson told Levario that Watkins "is not going to make himself available."
"It's his position that it would be improper for him to make an appearance in this matter and discuss issues that are clearly within the purview of his discretion as the district attorney," Snelson said.
She said Watkins was in his office, but was ill and feeling too sick to testify — the first time anyone had mentioned Watkins was sick. Watkins' spokeswoman, Debbie Denmon, declined to give details about the illness.
"We think it's an important case for prosecutors throughout the state to be able to conduct their investigations in an unfettered way," Russell Wilson, the prosecutor representing Watkins, said afterward.
Blue is a longtime local donor to Democrats and described herself in a court filing as a "personal and social friend" of Watkins.
She represented Hill in a long-running civil fight with his father over his inheritance. The case was settled in 2010 for about $115 million, according to The Dallas Morning News. Blue and two other attorneys took Hill to court after a dispute over legal fees from that settlement.
Hill's current legal team argued in in a court filing last year that Blue raised money for Watkins, spoke to him repeatedly and bragged about their close relationship.
"The D.A.'s Office has served as a stalking horse in this case for various interests, none of them the interest of justice," his lawyers said in a filing.
Blue said in a court filing Tuesday that she took two phone calls from Watkins after she had finished representing Hill. She said Watkins began the calls with the word "Hill" or "Hills," and in one conversation mentioned the word "indict" or "indictment" — at which point she immediately stopped the conversation.
But she declined to answer questions Thursday, citing her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The specter of a possible FBI investigation was also raised Thursday, when Levario asked for a break early in the hearing to find out if federal agents were involved in the case. Wilson said afterward that Watkins was not under federal investigation. An FBI spokeswoman in Dallas declined to comment, citing department policy.
Watkins has built a reputation for freeing wrongfully convicted inmates and has called for several reforms to the criminal justice system. But despite national acclaim, he has faced challenges in Dallas and narrowly won re-election in 2010. He has announced he's running for a third term in 2014.