DALLAS (CN) - Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins refuses to turn over records on his use of forfeiture funds to settle a car collision in which he was involved, and to pay for a sweep of his office for listening bugs before a federal investigation, The Dallas Morning News claims in court.
The newspaper sued Watkins - a Democrat - on Thursday in Dallas County Court. It also sued the Dallas County District Attorney's Office.
Morning News reporters have filed two requests under the Texas Public Information Act and Watkins has failed to turn over the information despite of "the fact that the information sought is public without exception," the newspaper claims.
The Morning News newspaper published a story on Aug. 16 detailing how Watkins rear-ended another vehicle in his county-owned vehicle last year while distracted on his cellphone.
"Watkins used public forfeiture funds to pay the other driver approximately $50,000 to settle the driver's claims and for a non-disclosure agreement barring the revelation of the accident details to the public, and used another $11,000 to repair the driver's vehicle," the 24-page complaint states.
"The TPIA may not be circumvented by contractual agreements by public officials or governmental bodies. The News also reported that typically the settlement of legal claims and lawsuits must be approved by the county commissioner's court. Therefore, on information and belief, this settlement involving public forfeiture funds appears irregular."
Then on Oct. 1, the Morning News published a story that Watkins paid Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations to sweep his office for listening bugs in 2011.
"The story also noted that Pinkerton's security sweep took place two months before agents from the FBI visited Watkins' office," the complaint states. "Mr. Watkins is a candidate for re-election as district attorney in the general election of November 4, 2014. His stewardship of public forfeiture funds and his administration of the district attorney's office are matters about which voters and the news media have a right to know under the Texas Public Information Act."
Watkins' election opponent - Republican Susan Hawk - blasted his use of forfeiture money to pay for the sweep, and described the payment to the other driver in the collisions as "hush money."
"What next? Wouldn't you like to know?" Hawk posted on Facebook on Oct. 2. "As DA, I will publish forfeiture fund expenses quarterly on the DA's website."
District Attorney spokeswoman Debbie Denmon said Watkins' office has received "an unusually high number" of public information requests - nearly 300 - in recent months.
"We have limited resources to respond as promptly as DMN reporter Jen Emily might desire," Denmon said in a statement Thursday evening. "One person who performs multiple functions, including responding to some of the requests at issue, was also working to provide pertinent information to county officials. This same staff member was responsible for preparing our $40 million budget proposal for approval, as well as participating in the yearly audit. Both the budget and audit procedures are big undertakings, and Jen Emily's requests overlapped - further straining our resources."
Denmon said she is "disappointed" that Morning News reporter Jennifer Emily "sought to have her employer sue us."
"In fact, I talked to Jen Emily today to provide information for a story and she failed to mention the lawsuit against us," Denmon said. "We are comfortable with the court addressing this issue."
The newspaper seeks a writ of mandamus for compliance with the TPIA.
It is represented by Paul Watler with Jackson Walker in Dallas.Follow @davejourno
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