DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – In a nasty fight involving Dallas’ rich, powerful, and politically connected– a federal judge rules against a Hunt family heir, while handing embattled District Attorney Craig Watkins a public relations victory, if not vindication.
Attorneys for Albert “Al” Hill III and his wife Erin have claimed in a suit filed in federal court that Lisa Blue, one of their attorneys in an inheritance case years ago, used her influence with the District Attorney’s office to have them indicted for felony mortgage fraud. Blue, along with attorneys Charla Aldous and Stephen Malouf won Hill $115 million dollars in that inheritance case– but, then later sued Hill for unpaid legal fees.
As the fight over the legal fees winds through the federal courts, the Hills have claimed that the mortgage fraud indictments kept them from participating in the trial over the fees. Those indictments, they claim, were the byproduct of a cozy relationship between Blue and D.A. Watkins. Blue is a frequent contributor to democratic candidates. According to court documents filed in the case, Blue donated $5,000 to D.A. Watkins and hosted a fundraiser for him less than a month before the indictments.
But, in denying the Hills’ latest motion, United States Magistrate Judge Renee Toliver wrote that Blue and D.A. Watkins “have had a personal, professional, and financial relationship since at least 2007, ” well before the attorneys were involved in the Hills’ case. According to the ruling, “The Hills nevertheless insist that the close temporal proximity of their increased communications and the return of the indictments necessarily means that Blue and D.A. Watkins were discussing the indictments. They, however, have not offered one iota of evidence to support this conjecture.” The Judge also called the Hills’ arguments about the attorneys’ alleged misbehavior a “rehash of those that the Court has rejected before.”
And while the federal court ruling is, for now, a moral victory for the District Attorney’s office, this messy saga is far from over. Essentially, the same facts are also being played out in a Dallas County Criminal Court– where attorneys for the Hills have alleged prosecutorial misconduct.
Last month, D.A. Watkins made headlines when he did not appear to testify at a hearing in the case. A spokesperson at the time said he was ill. According to his office, D.A. Watkins will be present for a hearing in the district court case scheduled for later this week. But, attorneys for Watkins have filed an appeal to prevent his appearance saying it would set a troubling precedent.
“We’ve asked the court to intervene, because the fact of the matter is, no prosecutor in the history of the United States that we can identify has ever been called upon to explain what he said at a conversation at dinner,” says Assistant District Attorney Russell Wilson, who is representing the state in the case. “The true fact of the matter is, it really doesn’t matter… that it didn’t have anything to do with the work of the Dallas county grand jury.”
The federal judge’s ruling has no legal bearing on the district court case. However, attorneys in the D.A.s office stress that the ruling is significant because Judge Toliver heard the same set of facts that attorneys for the Hills claim amount to prosecutorial misconduct– and found no wrongdoing.
“The notion that this was a prosecution that was done after one phone call has simply been an affront to justice as we see it in Dallas County,” says A.D.A. Wilson.
At an afternoon press conference, attorneys in the D.A.’s office say the federal judge’s ruling is also vindication for the grand jury that waded through months of testimony before returning mortgage fraud indictments against the Hills, and for the prosecutor leading the case. The D.A.’s office has offered to make that prosecutor available to answer questions about the case, but remains adamant that D.A. Watkins should not be compelled to testify because the grand jury determines who will face charges, not the District Attorney.
John Hueston, the Hills’ attorney, released a statement responding to the latest developments saying, “District Attorney Watkins is not above the law and has an obligation to respond to the pending subpoena and answer questions about his involvement under oath.” The statement goes on to calls D.A. Watkins’ actions thus far, “an injustice both to the Hills as well as the people he represents.”
First Asst. D.A. Heath Harris has called the prosecutorial misconduct charges “politically motivated” and likened them to “character assassination”– saying such things “may play out in California” [referring to the Hills’ out of state, attorney], but not in Dallas county.
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