Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dallas County DA Watkins accuses attorney general of politics in mortgage fraud case

By TIARA M. ELLIS - The Dallas Morning News - Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins and the Texas attorney general's office are at odds over what Mr. Watkins calls a political maneuver meant to embarrass him.

Central to the conflict is the release of a letter by the attorney general's office concerning a real estate fraud investigation that Mr. Watkins' staff asked the attorney general to investigate and prosecute.

Mr. Watkins and his wife, Tanya, own a title company through which authorities believe a man scammed a Dallas family out of their home with forged documents. Mrs. Watkins could be called as a witness in the mortgage fraud case, which would present a conflict of interest for Mr. Watkins and his office.

Because the state released the letter to a news organization under the Texas public information act, Mr. Watkins refused Friday to deputize an assistant attorney general to work on a gambling case in Dallas County.

"It's apparent to me that the AG is using this opportunity to play politics," Mr. Watkins said. "I would hope that I'm wrong. But now I have an issue of confidence as to what they are doing over there."

But an official with Attorney General Greg Abbott's office in Austin said in an e-mail Monday that Mr. Watkins' ire is misguided.

"Craig Watkins is subject to open records laws just like all other public officials," Jerry Strickland, communications director for the Office of the Attorney General, said in an e-mail. "It is unfortunate that a criminal case has been impacted simply because Craig Watkins appeared to expect that public information concerning him would be withheld from disclosure."

But Terri Moore, first assistant district attorney for Dallas County, contended Monday that the letter is part of an ongoing investigation and part of attorney-work privilege. As such, she said, it is not releasable under the public information act.

In the letter to the attorney general's office that was released, Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Richard Zadina wrote that "Mr. Watkins apparently rendered some legal services for the title company ..."

Mr. Watkins denies performing any legal work for Fidelity National Title, the company he and his wife own, or practicing law in any other capacity. Mr. Watkins said he agrees that the AG's office needed to investigate the mortgage fraud case. But he plans to find out why Mr. Zadina wrote that the district attorney was practicing law, which is prohibited.

Mr. Zadina did not return messages Monday.

In the meantime, the attorney general and district attorney remain at an impasse. It's not clear if officials in the attorney general's office plan to continue their investigation into the mortgage fraud case.

"The best thing we can do is distance ourselves from them," Ms. Moore said. "We want to have integrity in our process."

Mr. Watkins said if it is necessary, his office has the resources to prosecute the gambling case and could have an outside attorney prosecute the fraud case.

"We wouldn't have had an issue, but for them playing politics," Mr. Watkins said. "This has nothing to do with dispensing justice."

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