Jennifer Emily at the Dallas Morning News reports:
Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, who has been criticized recently for using his office’s asset forfeiture funds to settle a claim after a car crash, also used the money to pay attorneys when he was held in contempt of court last year.
The district attorney’s office spent $32,752 on outside counsel in the fiscal year ending Aug. 31, 2013, according to the Dallas County auditor.
Watkins’ spokeswoman, Debbie Denmon, said at least some of the money went to private attorneys who worked alongside prosecutors on the contempt case, which Watkins ultimately won.
“They were asking for his work product, and he refused to give it up,” Denmon said. “It was his official capacity.”
Attorney Mike Heiskell received about $18,000, Denmon said. Attorney Chad Baruch was also paid with forfeiture funds, but it was unclear how much.
Denmon said she did not know whether attorney Scottie Allen, who also worked on the contempt case, was paid from forfeiture funds. Allen could not be reached for comment.
Watkins was held in contempt in March 2013 when he refused to testify at a hearing where he was accused of seeking to indict a wealthy oil heir to benefit a political benefactor.
A judge held Watkins in contempt and dismissed the charges against the heir. Another judge later tossed the contempt citation; the dismissal of the charges is being appealed.
In February 2013, Watkins rear-ended another driver on the Dallas North Tollway when he was looking at his phone. He used $11,000 to repair the vehicle, which was bought with forfeiture money.
He also paid the driver more than $50,000 to settle a complaint without informing county commissioners. The settlement also required the other driver not to discuss the crash.
A reform bill sponsored by Texas State Senator John Whitmire (D-15) in 2011 was supposed to set stricter limits on asset forfeiture. The Texas Courts Municipal Education Center describes this legislation:
Subsections added to Article 59.06 of the Code of Criminal Procedure provide guidance on permissible uses for forfeited property and procedures for the disposition of such property. Under the new provisions, 40 percent is to be allocated to the seizing department, 30 percent to the prosecuting attorney’s office, and 30 percent to the general revenue fund. A list of prohibited uses is added to the article and includes: donations and political contributions, training and travel expenses, the purchase of alcoholic beverages, and payment of salaries for prosecutorial or law enforcement employees.
The bill also sets forth accountability procedures, including audits, designed to ensure the appropriate handling and use of seized assets. The Office of the Attorney General is authorized to seek injunctive relief and/or civil penalties not to exceed $100,000 per violation of Article 59.06.
Detailed reporting requirements concerning the use of forfeiture funds and an auditing process are also added to the Code. The new regulations will be effective on assets seized and expenditures made after the act becomes effective September 1, 2011.
Indeed, the use of forfeiture proceeds to fund legal defense and repair personal automobiles without notifying the Dallas County Commissioners seems to blatantly violate Article 59.06 (d):
Proceeds awarded under this chapter to a law enforcement agency or to the attorney representing the state may be spent by the agency or the attorney after a budget for the expenditure of the proceeds has been submitted to the commissioners court or governing body of the municipality.
It's time for the Texas Legislature to renew the focus on asset forfeiture laws with the understanding that allowing law enforcement direct access to forfeiture funds will inevitably breed abuse and corruption. Without ending this system, and returning the proceeds of asset forfeiture to a general fund directly appropriated by the legislature, it is certain that future scandals stemming from the abuse of forfeiture proceeds is inevitable.