FBI v. Craig Watkins

District Attorneys are, for better or worse, powerful people.  And very political people.  It’s one reason they don’t like to cross the police:  there’s no political percentage in it.  It’s a big downside risk with no upside.

They are absolutely immune from being sued in federal court.  And as a practical matter they are immune from prosecution by the feds as well.

So you have to wonder, with all the District Attorneys in the United States who are not only on the periphery of the dirty business of politics and may as a result have a hard time keeping their skirts absolutely clean, but who also abuse their office by not giving a shit about prosecuting innocent people **, the feds have to focus on one of the few who has prominently taken the innocence issue (I know, innocence shouldn’t be an ‘issue’, but bear with me) seriously.

But that’s what is happening in Dallas.

And this doesn’t smell right for other reasons:

“The DA’s office had never, ever pursued a mortgage fraud case like this one, where there was no loss,” said former federal prosecutor John Hueston, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents Hill III. “We spent two years investigating this matter, obtaining phone records and other evidence. We found a dark, grim view of a politician who tries to do the will of his political contributors.”

Hueston and Hill III’s defense team argue that Watkins brought the case to influence the legal fee dispute case on Blue’s behalf.

“We knew we had a difficult battle, because Craig Watkins had developed a positive, national reputation,” said Hueston, who led the U.S. Justice Department’s prosecution of Enron. “We knew there were dangers if we fired at the king and missed.”

So let’s get this straight.  You have Hueston, a “former federal prosecutor” who now represents a litigant in a civil matter in what amounts to a dispute over some hefty legal fees ($22 million) claimed by the litigant’s former lawyer.  The former lawyer, named Blue – and Hueston’s antagonist – is a political supporter of Watkins, who indicted Hueston’s client in state court.

While the circumstances might suggest that Watkins used his position to criminally prosecute in order to help his contributor gain advantage in a civil dispute, the circumstances also suggest that former federal prosecutor Hueston is using his position to criminally prosecute Watkins in order to gain advantage for himself and his client in a civil dispute.

Thus Hueston is a little defensive:

Other lawyers familiar with the investigation say FBI agents attended last week’s hearings in the Hill III case. Those lawyers also said the FBI agents approached members of the Hill III defense team after the hearing to ask them to share evidence they had gathered.

Hueston declined to comment on specifics but said: “We have had discussions with federal law enforcement about this matter. Law enforcement initiated those conversations; we did not pitch it.”

Totally fucking unheard of A little unusual for FBI agents to be attending hearings in a civil matter and asking the attorneys for one of the litigants to “share evidence” with them.  I’m sure the fact that the lead attorney for the litigant is a prominent “former federal prosecutor” is just a coincidence.

Is Watkins vulnerable?  You bet.  He’s crossed the police and some colleagues on the prosecutor side and I’m sure he has enemies in the Texas “law enforcement community” over his innocence advocacy.

And let’s consider this little tidbit:

Last week, state District Judge Lena Levario dismissed the mortgage fraud indictment against Hill III after Watkins refused to testify under oath about the circumstances leading to his decision to take the case to the grand jury. Levario also found Watkins in contempt.

Dismissal of an indictment is totally fucking unheard of extremely rare, even where there has been grotesque prosecutorial misconduct.  The idea is that we don’t punish the public for the misdeeds of a prosecutor, doncha know.  On the other hand, Judge Levario is a former public defender and maybe it’s more common with her.  Holding a sitting District Attorney in contempt?  I guess I could just say extremely rare again.

Complicating matters further, a federal magistrate judge in Dallas previously ruled that there was no hanky panky in the decision to prosecute Hueston’s client.

And complicating matters even further, there’s the racial angle:  Watkins is black.  It’s sad to say this in 2013, but a lot of the law enforcement community probably has it in for him in their heart of hearts for that reason alone.

All that aside, it’s fair to say that the federal prosecution of Watkins is as susceptible of the interpretation that it is driven by private interests as the original state prosecution of Hueston’s client was.  Both prosecutions should probably be dropped, but so far that has only happened to the state case.

People who care about integrity in DA’s offices in innocence cases, however imperfect the office’s integrity otherwise may be in other respects – and I’m not casting any aspersions here – should side hard with Watkins on this one.

————————————————————————————————–

 

** – And let’s not pretend that if the feds feel like it they can’t find something to prosecute almost anyone on, including District Attorneys.  In Moran’s case they had a nice juicy little graft scheme to look into that a local judge had already brought to official attention:

And I guess what it all amounted to was that Moran – and for all I know God knows who else, which is another question entirely – was using this bank created account designed to reimburse the victims of this fraud crime by a Livingston County car dealer as some kind of slush fund and making false claims against it by phantom people.  This, at least, was the implication based on what Judge Marks had told me.

 

…but the FBI didn’t attend any hearings about that and nothing has ever been done.  Of course, Moran isn’t a prominent advocate for the exoneration of the innocent, but that’s probably just a coincidence, too.  Right?

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