Depending on whom you ask, Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins’ repeated refusal to allow Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott into a local corruption investigation is either bold or stupid. Either way, it’s unusual.
Abbott has offered prosecution assistance to local district attorneys 226 times since 2007, when lawmakers first gave him permission to do it. In all but 16 cases, he’s been invited in. And Watkins didn’t decline politely: He accused the attorney general of having ulterior motives.
The Dallas case involves two Democratic constables accused of bribery and abuse of office. It has been the subject of months of speculation — first over why Watkins, a Democrat, didn’t appear to be investigating, and then over why he seemed to be setting up roadblocks to their prosecution. When Abbott offered to help, in August and again in February, Watkins refused, suggesting Abbott, a Republican, might be playing politics.
Watkins’ move, however rare, has reignited the long-standing turf war between the attorney general’s office and local district attorneys. Some say Abbott’s office should have more authority to force an investigation. “Put simply,” Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland said, “we’re just trying to help.” Others say the attorney general already goes too far to trample on local jurisdictions. “I’ll just say this,” Watkins told The Texas Tribune this month. “Don’t you think it’s a little weird that the attorney general would encroach on the territory of the district attorney?”
In the same interview, in which he wouldn't confirm or deny an investigation, Watkins gave hypothetical reasons why such a probe might not be complete — including limited staffing. “I only have two lawyers in the public integrity unit, making $70,000 a year, and they’re not just handling one case at a time,” he said. If they were working on the constable case, “would you expect them to be finished yet?”
But on Wednesday, Watkins said that if there were an investigation, his office would be "fully capable of efficiently conducting" it.
Texas district and county attorneys have long been able to ask the attorney general for help and have done so in cases in which they need more prosecutorial muscle. But the relationship doesn't work in reverse: The attorney general can rarely force his way into a local case.
That barrier sparked a legislative tussle after the 2007 Texas Youth Commission scandal, in which prison officials were accused of sexually assaulting youth inmates. When lawmakers learned that a West Texas district attorney had repeatedly failed to prosecute horrific sexual abuse at a youth lock-up — and that the attorney general had no authority to make him — they got hopping mad. Abbott’s office fought for legislation that would allow state investigators to step in without being invited, but local prosecutors pushed back hard, and successfully. The bill that passed gave the attorney general permission to offer assistance to a district attorney but left it up to the district attorney whether to accept it, a relatively minor change.
Still, the offers of assistance appear persuasive; in the last two years, district attorneys have accepted 93 percent of them. But it’s unclear how many of those local prosecutors would have asked for help anyway. And in the big cases, there’s sometimes more than an offer at play.
In 2008, when state authorities raided a remote West Texas polygamist ranch and removed hundreds of children from their parents, Abbott’s office sought to step in. The attorney general expected high-profile charges, and he was right: More than a dozen men were accused of sexual assault or bigamy, including notorious sect leader Warren Jeffs. They knew the case would be one of the largest and costliest criminal investigations in Texas history.
At first, Abbott’s offer to help in West Texas fell on deaf ears, a state government source close to the case said. It appeared, the source said, that the district attorney’s office wanted to handle the case on its own. But then Abbott’s office learned that local county commissioners had asked Gov. Rick Perry’s office for emergency funds to care for the sect’s children. Abbott approached Perry’s office to make the funding contingent on allowing the attorney general to help prosecute, the source said — and it worked. (Tom Green County District Attorney Stephen Lupton could not be reached for comment.)
District and county attorneys are often wary of the attorney general’s forays onto their turf. They say they work well with state prosecutors on their terms — when they need an extra set of hands, or have a conflict of interest. Watkins himself invited Abbott into a separate Dallas constable case in 2007, one in which he believed he had a conflict.
But they watch closely for measures that empower Abbott at their expense. Last legislative session, they successfully squashed a bill they believed would give Abbott more authority in local criminal cases. “As a general rule, local officials are always a little leery when a statewide official wants to centralize power in Austin,” said Shannon Edmonds, director of government relations for the Texas District and County Attorney’s Association. “I think that probably holds true in this case as well.”
Hidalgo County District Attorney Rene Guerra, whose office has often been at odds with Abbott, said rough relations between attorneys general and district attorneys are nothing new. They got tense in 2000, when then-Attorney General John Cornyn brought a Collin County district attorney’s death penalty case to the U.S. Supreme Court and “confessed error” — saying a jury had sentenced convicted killer Victor Hugo Saldano to death based on testimony that included unconstitutional references to his race. (An expert witness said Saldano posed a future risk because he was Hispanic.) When Cornyn pushed for a review of all Texas capital punishment cases for similar expert testimony, he struck a nerve with local district attorneys who had prosecuted them.
Guerra, a Democrat entering his eighth term, says relations haven’t improved under Abbott. The attorney general, he says, offers assistance when it’s politically expedient and refuses to help if it’s not. (Abbott’s office offered assistance to Guerra for an elections violation case in 2009, but Guerra’s office did not accept it. Guerra says he didn’t need it, because the investigation was well under way.) “A whole bunch of us, the last thing in our minds is to bring in the AG,” Guerra said. “You can’t depend on them. They don’t know the community, and they bring in investigators who really don’t know what they’re dealing with.”
Abbott’s office calls Guerra’s comments a giant mischaracterization and says the attorney general has successfully prosecuted hundreds of criminals from the Rio Grande Valley to the Red River. “The public can only speculate about the motivation behind Rene Guerra’s refusal to work cooperatively with the Texas attorney general,” Strickland said. “Guerra should be less concerned about turf and more concerned about working cooperatively to prevent crime in his district.”