Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, under fire at home for his handling of an investigation into Democratic county constables, played defense before an Austin crowd this morning in a TribLive interview with the Tribune's Evan Smith.

Watkins, who has been accused of stalling or avoiding an investigation into two county constables within his party, said he actually launched the investigation in 2009 — but said it was strictly confidential at the time, which is why he couldn't reveal it. "When we are investigating someone... we have to respect the system," he said. "Especially during an election cycle." (Watkins himself is running for re-election this year.)

Watkins said two of the Republican Dallas County Commissioners who he believes usurped his authority by hiring an outside investigator were already aware he was investigating, but knew he couldn't announce it publicly. He has no qualms about trying to block their efforts, saying he was "really protecting the sanctity of the District Attorney's office... because of the political atmosphere afoot." 

Watkins said the results of that investigator's review pale in comparison to what his office has uncovered since. He said the constables are now "not the only two elected officials" being investigated, and that there "is still going to have to be, at some point, a prosecution." Meanwhile, he defended his selection of Ted Lyon, a Democrat who has contributed to Watkins' campaign, as a special prosecutor to oversee the case — even though he rejected Attorney General Greg Abbott's repeated offers of prosecutorial assistance.

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On his selection of Lyon, Watkins said it was not about politics — it was because Lyon, a former cop, former state lawmaker, and 30-year attorney, is highly qualified. He said Lyon has donated just $500 to his campaign over the last three years — and that if it's a big deal, he'd happily return the sum.

On his rejection of Abbott's offers, Watkins smiled and shifted in his seat. "Our philosophical approach to justice in Texas is very different," was all he would say.

Watkins chuckled when asked to respond to a comment he made the last time the Tribune interviewed him — "It's a religious experience to vote for Craig Watkins." In retrospect, Watkins said this morning, "I didn't mean it literally." But he said he's a deeply religious person, and that he wants the public to feel about voting the way they feel about going to church — like it's "something you don't think about, you just do." 

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