DALLAS –– On Monday, Dallas County prosecutors argued a federal judge's ruling cleared District Attorney Craig Watkins on allegations that he provided special favors for a wealthy campaign contributor.
When a grand jury indicted Al Hill III, an heir to the Hunt oil fortune, for mortgage fraud, he claimed Watkins did it as a favor for attorney and friend Lisa Blue Baron. Hill and Blue are embroiled in a legal fee dispute in federal court.
In a ruling last Friday, a federal judge didn't buy the prosecutorial misconduct argument. Two of Watkins' top prosecutors hailed the federal judge's ruling as "vindication" and another reason why Watkins should not have to testify in a related and very delicate case in a state district court.
"If you look at the findings, she clearly said there's not one iota of evidence that supports prosecutorial misconduct in this case," said First Assistant District Attorney Heath Harris in a news conference Monday afternoon.
However, a state judge and other lawyers in the case say it's not so clear the ruling has any impact at all.
State District Judge Lena Levario, who's handling Hill's criminal fraud case, wants to know more about the allegation of prosecutorial favoritism. During a hearing last week, Watkins refused to testify despite being subpoenaed. He had his assistants tell the court he was sick and should not be compelled to testify as the county's top law enforcement official.
At a Monday hearing, Hill's attorney, George Milner, said the federal judge's ruling doesn't stop Watkins from testifying.
"The federal court has never ruled on anything related to anything going on in this courtroom," he said.
After the hearing, Watkins' assistant DA, Russell Wilson, essentially agreed, saying, "No we're not saying the federal judge's ruling is binding on this judge."
So the question is now whether Watkins will testify at a Thursday hearing before Judge Levario and answer if he used his office to help a friend. Wilson indicated they'll fight it.
"We don't see any testimony from Mr. Watkins as being relevant," he said.
But Milner anticipates he'll be there.
"I'm fully expecting him to be present in court," he said.