Corporate gifts for Dallas district attorney's office staff party raise eyebrows
By JENNIFER EMILY / The Dallas Morning News
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
At least one defense attorney is listed among several corporate donors who gave Christmas party gifts to employees of the Dallas County district attorney as door prizes after the district attorney's office asked them to make the donations.
District Attorney Craig Watkins said his office did nothing wrong when it asked corporations and other donors to provide his staff – including prosecutors – with the door prizes.
"At this point, I would do it again," Mr. Watkins said Tuesday in an interview.
Despite Mr. Watkins' insistence that "nobody did anything wrong," the actions by his office have raised eyebrows with other district attorney offices and public watchdog groups. They say the DA's office is in a legally and ethically murky area.
"I don't know if it's a violation meriting prosecution, but it's certainly poor judgment," said Craig McDonald, executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit group that traces the influence of money and corporate power.
"It doesn't look good, it doesn't smell good, and hopefully it doesn't happen in the future," he said.
State law prohibits elected officials from accepting gifts, but Mr. Watkins said the donations are exempt because the law allows for such benefits from personal, professional or business relationships independent of his official status.
Donated prizes at last year's Christmas party included American Airlines tickets, luxury suite tickets to a Dallas Cowboys game, two round-trip tickets on Greyhound and gift cards worth hundreds of dollars.
Defense attorney Doug Mulder, a former top Dallas County prosecutor, is among those who donated prizes for the party, according to a flier distributed for the party and released to The Dallas Morning News by the district attorney's office. Mr. Mulder could not be reached for comment.
DA's office spokeswoman Jamille Bradfield said she did not know what Mr. Mulder donated because the office did not keep complete records of the contributions. She said she does not believe other defense attorneys donated money or were asked to do so.
Mr. Mulder has opposed Dallas prosecutors in several cases since he left the office years ago, including some in recent years.
Ms. Bradfield said she and Mr. Watkins' assistant, Gloria James, solicited the prizes from personal and business contacts made outside their jobs in the district attorney's office.
She said letters soliciting the donations were written without required approval from a top administrator after companies that had verbally agreed to a donation requested something to have on file about the donation. The letters of solicitation and thank-you notes were on district attorney letterhead.
Ms. Bradfield once worked for Greyhound and Blockbuster and requested prizes from them, she said. "They did it as a favor to Jamille, not the office of Mr. Watkins," Ms. Bradfield said.
Mr. McDonald said he doesn't accept Ms. Bradfield's explanation. The gifts were sought on behalf of the district attorney's office – not individuals, he said.
District attorney offices in Collin, Travis and Tarrant counties said they would not request or accept such gifts.
Collin County First Assistant District Attorney Greg Davis, a former Dallas County prosecutor, said doing so could compromise the perception of how or why certain people are prosecuted.
"We would never do that. It would be inappropriate," Mr. Davis said. "It might leave the impression there could be preferential treatment."
Letters sent to donors when the prizes were solicited promised "face to face" time with Mr. Watkins in exchange for their gifts.
Mr. Watkins said the prizes were meant to reward his staff for their hard work. Representatives from some companies spoke briefly at the party when their prizes were given away.
Tom Smith, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, another watchdog group, said that Mr. Watkins should not have accepted the gifts but that "no grand jury in the state would indict him."
Mr. Watkins said he resents the implication he did anything wrong.
"I just think it's careless and reckless to claim I committed a crime," he said.
The State Bar of Texas investigates allegations of attorney misconduct if grievances are filed, said Maureen Ray, special administrative council for the bar's office of chief disciplinary council.
Ms. Ray declined to discuss whether receiving gifts like those at the Christmas party violated the rules of conduct.
Those rules address conflicts of interest, responsibilities of prosecutors and that attorneys should not commit crimes. The rules say lawyers should not represent a person if they are "adversely limited" by their personal interests.
But Mr. Smith of Public Citizen said it's rare for the state bar to take public action even when a grievance is filed.
"The bar is really a trade association as opposed to a regulatory agency," he said. "They're highly conflicted in their role of protecting the practitioner and protecting the public."
William Chriss, executive director and dean of the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism, said he doesn't believe soliciting the gifts violates any professional ethics rules, but he said promising time with Mr. Watkins is "getting a little closer to a problem."
In addition to the donated prizes for staff and prosecutors, Mr. Watkins at the party awarded employees pins for years of service and trophies for honors such as "felony prosecutor of the year." Mr. Watkins said he spent $4,500 of his own money on food and prizes such as DVDs and gift cards.