Dallas DA's staff asked for prizes from area businesses
© 2008 The Associated Press
June 3, 2008
DALLAS — Watchdog groups have questions about prizes sponsored by major companies and a defense attorney for staff of the Dallas District Attorney's Office, a Dallas television station reported.
The gifts included luxury suite tickets to a Cowboy's game, round trip flight tickets to anywhere in the U.S. from American Airlines, several hundred dollars worth of gift cards and other items, KDFW-TV reported Monday night.
Members of the district attorney's staff asked for the gifts, which were given away at a staff party thrown for Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins' first Christmas in office, the television station said.
"I think it raises serious questions," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice.
Public servants in Texas are not allowed to ask for or accept gifts from someone subject to an investigation. Texas law also forbids people from giving a gift to someone who shouldn't accept it.
"Clearly the statute was designed to prevent these kinds of appearances of impropriety and to set guidelines for elected officials and to say 'You shouldn't be out asking people, who may be appearing before you, that you may have to investigate, for favors and for gifts'," said Tom "Smitty" Smith, the director of Public Citizen.
But the district attorney said no laws were broken because of an exemption allowing gifts when a relationship independent of the official status exists. In this case, the staff simply asked friends for prizes, Watkins said.
"Questions that have been raised about potential violations of any kind are groundless. It is unfortunate, that of all the real news being generated out of the D.A.'s office ... that the media would waste time reporting on our office's holiday event that occurred five and half months ago," he said in a statement.
The television station found district attorney's assistant Gloria James sent Time Warner a request on official county letterhead for a prize "with a minimum value of $500 or more." In return, Time Warner would receive a stocking packed with goodies, including "face to face interaction with District Attorney Craig Watkins," according to a letter provided to KDFW in response to an open records requests.
James told the television station Monday that she had revised the letter to Time Warner and instead asked for just $50 in gifts.
In another request, the DA's office asked American Airlines for "2-to-4 round trip tickets to anywhere American flies in the United States." In exchange, the airline would receive "direct access to over 400 professional consumers" — the District Attorney's staff.
Another letter asks the American Airlines Center for "4 to 8 tickets" to a Mavericks or Stars game. In return, AAC representatives would get to make sponsor remarks at the Christmas party and have a photo opportunity with the District Attorney.
"It looks like they're selling access to the staff and office of the District Attorney," McDonald said. "With access comes familiarity and perhaps comes bias in the future."
Watkins said the door prize solicitation letters only violated internal policy because a top manager did not approve them. He did not see the solicitation letters until after the television station asked for them, Watkins said.