The Lone Star State has produced its share of outstanding lawyers, including Thomas C. Clark, who served as U.S. Attorney General from 1945 to 1949, and then 18 years on the U.S. Supreme Court. Clark first made his mark as the civil district attorney for Dallas County, Texas. Unfortunately one of his successors, incumbent Dallas County D.A. Craig Watkins, has strayed from the standards of public service Clark laid down.
Public controversy over campaign funds has dogged Watkins for at least two years, but it is a legal matter in which he currently is embroiled that casts serious doubt on his commitment to serve his constituents and his profession fairly and impartially.
The case that has created a cloud over Watkins’ six-year tenure as the top prosecutor for Dallas is quintessential Texas – big money, big egos and big names. It began as a dispute between descendants of the fabled Texas oil tycoon, H. L. Hunt, arguing over proceeds from multi-billion dollar trusts bequeathed to his heirs.
H. L.’s grandson, Albert Hill, Jr., and his estranged son Albert Hill III, had been engaged in a running legal battle over the family’s efforts to sell the multi-billion dollar Hunt Petroleum, owned by two of the trusts established in the 1930s and as to which both Hill, Jr. and his son were beneficiaries. Eventually, as a direct results of this dispute, the father moved to disinherit the son, who then filed a civil RICO action against his father in 2007.
One of the lawyers representing Hill III from late 2009 to mid-2010 was Lisa Blue Baron, widow of Fred Baron, the late colleague and political confidant of former vice-presidential nominee and presidential wannabe, John Edwards. From there, the matter became truly complicated.
Following a settlement in May 2010 between the two Hill antagonists, Blue and two other Dallas attorneys working with her demanded a contingency fee from Hill III that exceeded $50 million. Blue’s client refused to pay the Texas-sized fee, which in turn led to another federal-court dispute. In the midst of these intra-family and attorney-client legal battles, entered Watkins, a major recipient of Blue’s many political contributions.
The relationship between Blue and Watkins appears to be multi-faceted; with legal as well as political overtones. Blue created a $100,000 scholarship in Watkins’ name at Southern Methodist University’s law school. She represented Watkins at no fee in a lawsuit he brought against a former FBI agent who had investigated charges of corruption in Dallas County.
Most troubling are court documents that reveal an extensive record of phone conversations between Blue and Watkins, including at least two in early 2011 that – according to a deposition Blue was forced to provide – dealt explicitly with the possible indictment of Albert Hill III and his wife, Erin, by a Dallas County grand jury.
In fact, just days before the scheduled start of the fee dispute trial between Blue and Hill, he and his wife were indicted on what seem at best to be thin charges of mortgage fraud; charges that appear to stem from an earlier complaint to Watkins by none other than Albert Hill, Jr. While the charges against Erin were subsequently dropped, those against Hill III are still pending.
Predictably, the fact that Hill III suddenly found himself under indictment during his civil fee dispute trial and his reputation and credibility thus besmirched, led to his not testifying. Hill understandably feared testifying in his own behalf might provide fodder for the just-announced criminal charges. Not surprisingly, without benefit of the Hills’ testimony, the federal court found in favor of Blue and her colleagues -- awarding them some $21 million in legal fees. Not long after this financial victory, Blue and one of her colleagues from the Hill case were retained by Watkins in an unrelated civil suit seeking damages against a mortgage business.
Whether the relationship between Blue and Watkins has crossed any legal boundaries remains to be seen, but a motion by Hill’s lawyers to dismiss the charges based on prosecutorial misconduct has been filed.
Communications between an outside lawyer actively engaged in a fee dispute with a former client and a prosecuting attorney with a close donor-recipient relationship with that same lawyer, discussing a potential indictment of the former client, presents – if nothing else – an unethical appearance of impropriety. That such communications took place at the precise moment at which an indictment of that individual would most benefit his former lawyer, raises even more serious questions.
Robert Jackson, a former U.S. Attorney General and Supreme Court Justice, who also served as the chief prosecutor at the Nuremburg war crimes tribunal, admonished federal prosecutors in a 1940 speech at the Department of Justice, that the “immense power” of the prosecutor must be wielded always with fairness and integrity. Jackson correctly noted that the true prosecutor, “seeks truth and not victims . . . serves the law and not factional purposes, and . . . approaches his task with humility.”
Unfortunately, in Dallas County, Texas in 2012 the echoes of that timeless and eloquent definition of proper prosecutorial behavior appear not to reverberate.