AUSTIN, Texas — Yesterday on his Facebook page, Texas State Representative Jason Villalba (R-Dallas), posted an announcement that he was calling for an independent audit of the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office “in light of recent allegations that District Attorney Craig Watkins improperly used public funds and violated county procedures and regulations following a distracted driving accident while operating a county-owned vehicle.”
Watkins, a Democrat who is the top law enforcement officer for Dallas County, was driving a county-owned vehicle on February 5, 2013 when he rear-ended another car on the Dallas North Tollway, causing injuries to the driver of the other car and property damage to both cars. Watkins was found at fault for the accident. According to reports, he had been distracted reading a text message on his phone.
County procedures mandated that the damaged county-owned vehicle be repaired at a county-approved repair facility, but Watkins instead took the car to a private repair shop, where the costs exceeded $11,000. Watkins also arranged to settle the case for more than $52,000 in damages, paid for by the Dallas County Attorney’s Office. The settlement agreement that Watkins negotiated also prohibited the other driver from talking about the accident or Watkins’ actions. The second-in-command at the DA’s office, First Assistant District Attorney Heath Harris, also signed off on the settlement.
Watkins had drawn from asset forfeiture funds–assets that are confiscated because they are the alleged proceeds or instrumentalities of a crime–under the control of his office to pay both the settlement payment and the repairs to his vehicle. This was in violation of county procedures, which require a budget to be submitted to the Dallas County Commissioners before any asset forfeiture funds are spent, and requires that the funds only be spent “solely for the official purposes” of the DA’s office.
Watkins also failed to follow other required procedures, including deadlines for reporting accidents to the fleet coordinator and county auditor, misrepresentations about the seriousness of the accident, and forms that he was supposed to submit.
Villalba learned of Watkins’ activities after a news report by WFAA on August 14, 2014 revealed the accident and how Watkins had tried to keep it from the public eye by privately negotiating a settlement and disbursing funds for the repairs and settlement without getting the required approvals. In fact, Watkins did not notify the Dallas County Commissioners as required by law until he had learned that WFAA was going to air the story, and sent the commissioners an email mere hours before the report went live.
“It’s our responsibility to earn and maintain the public trust, that’s why this case demands an immediate review and audit,” said Villalba. “Public funds should never be used to cover up reckless driving or to pay personal settlements on behalf of public officials. If Mr. Watkins has violated the law, he should be held responsible.”
“District Attorney Watkins’ behavior demonstrates a complete disregard for the policies put in place to protect the use of these funds. As a sworn official whose duty is to uphold the law, his blatant disregard for the rules that govern his office is just unacceptable,” Villalba continued.
WFAA’s report also includes an interview with Robert Reckendorf, owner of Parts Express, the repair shop that Watkins used. Reckendorf remarked on a number of things that he thought were odd about the situatino: the fact that he was not a regular repair shop for the county, and that the damage to the car was severe enough that it should have been totaled, not repaired, Additionally, when the car’s inspection sticker expired, Watkins attempted to pressure him into taking a valid sticker from another car. Reckendorf refused. Watkins also tried to get Reckendorf to release the car to him before the full repair bill had been paid, even going so far as to threaten his business.
The FBI has launched an investigation into the matter, starting by interviewing Reckendorf, the repair shop owner, this week. In Texas, the Texas State Auditor has the authority to investigate the use or misuse of county asset forfeiture funds. A staffer for Rep. Villalba confirmed today that they had submitted their request to the Texas State Auditor and had left a message following up today. Villalba has also called on the Texas Attorney General’s Office to investigate.
Sarah Elizabeth Rumpf is a political and communications consultant living in Austin. You can follow her on Twitter at @rumpfshaker.