DALLAS -- It was a routine traffic accident involving Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins. But what happened afterward was far from routine, and it's raising some serious red flags.
A News 8 investigation found the Dallas County District Attorney's Office:
- Did not follow county policy on the reporting and handling of accidents.
- Paid more than $50,000 to the man Watkins hit and the man's employer without telling Dallas County Commissioners.
- Used asset forfeiture funds to pay those settlements, which experts say violates the spirit of the law and perhaps the letter of the law.
By using a fund it controls, the DA's office effectively kept the settlement from public view. It never appeared on a commissioners court agenda for approval.
Thursday, hours before News 8's story aired, the DA's office sent an e-mail to county commissioners notifying them about the impending story - and about the settlements.
'It's problematic, because you really are flying in the face of transparency,' said Steve Jumes, a Fort Worth attorney who specializes in asset forfeiture cases. 'When you settle a claim, you've been accused of wrongdoing, and to use asset forfeiture funds to clean up the mess of a law enforcement agency or a DA's office, it is so far afield from how that money is generally and traditionally used, it would buy a lot of controversy.'
The DA's office said it has done nothing wrong and that the law authorizes them to use the money to pay settlements. Watkins declined an interview request.
The crash occurred on the morning of Feb. 5, 2013. Watkins was driving a county-owned Ford Edge on the Dallas North Tollway. He was headed to a speaking engagement at the Park Cities Club. His 14-year-old son was with him.
At 7:50 a.m., Watkins ran into the back of a truck. According to the police report, the accident was Watkins' fault and he was 'reading information' on his cell phone which is a violation of county policy, as well. The trooper rated the damage as a 3 on a scale of 1 to 7, with seven being the most severe.
The SUV was towed to a body shop on Second Avenue, where it sat for five months. Because the vehicle is county-owned, there's a detailed policy about what's supposed to take place when accidents happen.
That policy requires that the driver fill out a property damage report, known as Form 2A; that it be given to the fleet coordinator and the county auditor within 24 hours, and that county mechanics oversee the repairs.
None of that happened in this case.
Teresa Guerra Snelson, the chief of the DA's civil division, told News 8 that she was new to the office at that time and didn't know about the policy. Snelson said she told county administrator Darryl Martin about the crash, and provided him a copy of the accident report, so she believed she had done her due diligence.
'The county was aware. The accident was reported. You are correct, a form was not filled out, but so what?' Snelson told News 8 in a phone interview. 'It's an accident. Accidents happen, and it was handled appropriately and in the normal course of business and within the authority that the DA and I have.'
Martin confirmed to News 8 that he was told about the accident, but he said he was given the impression that the accident was very minor and no serious damage had resulted. He also said that he had no idea until more than a year later that the DA's office had failed to follow county accident policy.
On July 1, 2013, the vehicle was towed to a mechanic shop in northwest Dallas. It had extensive front-end damage, including bent frame rails.
Robert Reckendorf, owner of Parts Express, said he thought it was odd that the DA's office would bring it to him, given that he doesn't service county vehicles and his shop specializes in fixing imports.
'There was some severe damage to the car, probably a total loss. But they wanted it fixed, so we did the best we could,' Reckendorf said. 'That should have been one that you don't want to fix. Any insurance company would have told them that. Any insurance company would have told them this is a total loss.'
As they were fixing the car, Reckendorf said they realized the damage was worse than they thought and the transmission had been damaged. He said the original estimate ballooned from $6,500 to more than $11,000.
At one point, he said the district attorney's investigator who he was dealing with was pushing him to hurry up and finish the repairs because of an impending audit.
'They needed that vehicle back on their lot for an audit,' Reckendorf said. 'There was an audit, where I guess the vehicles were counted and had to be accounted for by someone else, and that's why the vehicle had to be back on the lot.'
Reckendorf also told Jones the SUV's inspection sticker was out-of-date. The repair shop owner said Jones wanted him to put an inspection sticker from another vehicle on the SUV. Reckendorf said he refused and mechanics worked on the Ford Edge until it passed inspection.
When the repairs were completed in January 2014, Reckendorf said he notified the investigator, Tommy Jones, that he could come pick up the car.
Reckendorf said Jones wanted him to release the vehicle first, and then let him pay later. Reckendorf refused.
'He got pretty defensive with me and he actually threatened my business -- sent me some text messages and told me that if I didn't just release that car, it would be a big problem,' Reckendorf said. 'It kind of scared me, what he said. But at the same time, I just told him, 'Hey, if you want your car, you need to come and pay the bill, just like any other person.''
A few weeks later, the bill was paid and the car was released.
Meanwhile, by the time the car was released from Reckendorf's shop, the Dallas County District Attorney's Office had paid $47,500 to the man Watkins hit and $4,543 to the man's employer. The DA's second-in-command, First Assistant District Attorney Heath Harris, personally signed off on it, records show.
The settlement agreement contains extensive language about not talking to the press, which experts say is quite unusual.
It required the man Watkins hit and his attorney to agree 'not to disclose, reference or suggest such information to anyone (including but not limited to any newspapers, television, radio, media representative, website or blog).' It further states that they will not 'contact, attempt to contact, or communicate in any way with any news media or other information reporting services.'
Attorney Steve Jumes, who is a former prosecutor, called that language troubling, and said it's a clear attempt to keep what happened hidden. He said forfeiture funds are typically used for operating expenses and buying equipment, and he's never heard of someone using it to pay a settlement.
'I think that any taxpayer would be very nervous if a governmental entity was accused of wrongdoing and then the governmental agency just pays off that claim from a fund that they have complete control over,' Jumes said. 'It flies in the face of democracy.'
Debbie Denmon, a spokeswoman for the DA's office, defended the use of the forfeiture money, citing a provision of the law which allows the funds to be used for 'legal fees.'
The use of those funds has come under increasing public and legislative scrutiny. In recent years, legislators have passed legislation listing the do's and don'ts for those funds.
In 2010, the Texas Attorney General's Office concluded that a district attorney could not use asset forfeiture to pay for their legal defense in a lawsuit related to their official duties.
'I have a hard time distinguishing that from a settlement,' Jumes said. 'If a settlement is anything, it's somebody accuses you of wrongdoing, and you have to pay money to make that controversy go away.'
If an entity is found to have misspent forfeiture funds, the attorney general can file a lawsuit. A law enforcement agency or attorney who 'knowingly' violates that section of the law could be subject up to a fine of $100,000.
In April, county officials say they realized the vehicle had been in a serious wreck because it wasn't working properly. They took it to a county-contracted independent appraiser who said more than $4,100 in repair work needed to be done.
The appraiser noted: 'The county has no record of this vehicle ever having front-end damage or its front-end repairs.'