News Station Investigation: The DA's Christmas Wish List
By Paul Adrian
Monday, 02 Jun 2008
Usually, it's only Santa, parents and grandparents who get Christmas wish lists, but one of the area's top law agencies sent out a list to others and got some great gifts.
The gifts included luxury suite tickets to a Cowboy's game, round trip flight tickets to anywhere in the U.S., several hundred bucks worth of gift cards and much more.
They were all door prizes given away at a staff party thrown by Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins for his first Christmas in office.
FOX 4 obtained the script for a speech Watkins gave to his staff. The county’s top law enforcer started by thanking the sponsors for donating “awesome door prizes.”
“On behalf of the District Attorney’s entire staff,” Watkins’ script reads, “I’d like to thank American Airlines, the American Airlines Center, Blockbuster, Coca-Cola, Douglas D. Mulder – Attorney at Law, First Choice Power, Greyhound Lines, Sheraton Hotels & Resorts and Time Warner Cable for providing these prizes.”"I think it raises serious questions," said Craig McDonald, who heads Texans for Public Justice.
FOX 4 provided records from the DA’s party to two watchdog groups.
Leaders of both had big problems with the idea that the District Attorney would allow corporate sponsors and a criminal defense attorney to pay for gifts to prosecutors."These are all entities that the District Attorney may, at some time, need to investigate or prosecute,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, the director of Public Citizen’s Texas office.
The 'awesome' gifts Watkins’ described did not just drop down a chimney.
The D.A. says members of his staff asked for the gifts. On the D.A.’s official county letterhead, his assistant, Gloria James sent Time Warner a wish list for a prize "...with a minimum value of $500 or more."
In return, the letter promised Time Warner a stocking packed with goodies, including "face to face interaction with District Attorney Craig Watkins.""If you give us a gift, we're going to give you a benefit, face time with the D.A," Smith interpreted.
The D.A.’s office asked American Airlines to gift wrap "2-to-4 round trip tickets to anywhere American flies in the United States."
Give, the letter promised, and you will receive "direct access to over 400 professional consumers" - that would be the District Attorney’s staff.“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"
The letter James sent to the American Airlines Center asked for "4 to 8 tickets" to a Mavericks or Stars game. In return, A.A.C. reps would get to make sponsor remarks at the Christmas party as well as have a photo op with the D.A.
"You've asked for a favor and they've given it to you,” Smith said. “Are you now obligated to give them a favor back?”
Watkins says he never saw any of the solicitation letters until after we asked for them. He admits sending the letters violated internal policy because no top manager approved them.
Watkins believes no laws were broken, but others think there may be a problem with Texas Law. Public servants are not allowed to ask for or accept gifts from someone subject to an investigation.
Smith said, “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.’"
Texas law also forbids people from giving a gift to someone who shouldn't accept it. But how do you say no to the District Attorney?"You feel obligated to give,” McDonald said. “You think if I don't give, is the District Attorney going to come after me? Is there something that we might have done?"
Watkins gave us a written statement saying: "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."
Watkins contends no one broke the law, because of an exemption that allows gifts to be given because of a relationship independent of the official status of the recipient.The District Attorney claims the staff members who did the asking simply went to their friends. So, he says, it’s all legal.
But the thank you letter Watkins himself sent to each sponsor - began with plugs for the prosecutors who "work tirelessly to protect... by continuously seeking justice and getting criminals off the street."
Sound like a thank you letter you would send a personal friend?“Christmas party or not,” McDonald said, “a public official should not be soliciting or accepting gifts, particularly prosecutors, should not be soliciting or accepting gifts from those they one day might have to prosecute.”
See the Texas Attorney General’s published opinion on whether it’s legal for a District Attorney to accept gifts.