Oil Heir Wins Ruling Against Former Dallas DA

     AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — A Dallas County trial judge did not exceed her authority by hearing prosecutorial-misconduct accusations from an heir to the Hunt oil fortune during a bitter family dispute, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled.
     In a 9-0 opinion, the state’s highest criminal appeals court disagreed with a ruling by the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas, which found that Judge Lena Levario abused her discretion in forcing former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins to answer questions under oath about a criminal case against Al Hill III, the great-grandson of oilman H.L. Hunt.
     During the March 2013 hearing, Watkins took the stand but declined to answer questions about prosecutorial misconduct, citing attorney-client and work-product privileges.
     Hill was charged in 2009, accused of submitting false documents when applying for a $500,000 home equity loan.
     Hill’s attorneys claimed Watkins filed the charges as a favor to his political donor and Dallas attorney Lisa Blue, citing phone records of alleged conversations between Watkins and Blue before the indictment. They said Blue had formerly represented Hill in litigation over the family fortune, then sued him for attorneys’ fees.
     Watkins had been held in contempt of court for weeks after he had been served with a subpoena.
     Judge Levario ultimately granted Hill’s motion to quash and dismissed the indictments against him.
     The Fifth Court of Appeals later ruled in favor of the state on appeal, sustaining two points of error and reversing the dismissal. It held the trial judge erred in holding the March 2013 hearing.
     The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed on Wednesday, concluding “it was within the trial court’s discretion” to hold the hearing.
     Writing for the court, Judge Bert Richardson remanded the case to the lower appeals court for rulings on two remaining issues. One concerns whether the trial judge could dismiss the indictments based on Watkins’ refusal to testify.
     Richardson wrote there “might be a grain of truth” to the state’s argument that the hearing was an attempt by Hill “to conduct impermissible discovery” and that the trial court’s dismissal was “an impermissible sanction” for failing to turn over privileged work product.
     “However, the court of appeals did not expressly address whether either side had made a valid argument regarding whether the questioning of Watkins was impermissible under our discovery statute,” the 37-page opinion states. “Moreover, the court of appeals did not address whether the evidence that was presented at the hearing supported either the granting or the denial of Hill’s motion to dismiss notwithstanding the lack of testimony from Blue or Watkins.” (Emphasis in original.)
     Hill’s attorney, George Milner with Milner Finn in Dallas, believes the Fifth Court of Appeals will ultimately dismiss the charges against his client.
     “This case is 5 years old. Mr. and Mrs. Hill have done nothing wrong,” he told Texas Lawyer on Thursday. “It’s time for this case to receive its proper burial.”
     Special prosecutor Chad Baruch said he was disappointed in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ “really narrow” decision.
     “They basically kicked all of the substance of the case back to the court of appeals. It’s gone on too long probably,” he told Texas Lawyer. “But sometimes that happens when a case goes up and down the appellate ladder.”
     Watkins’ subsequent re-election bid in 2014 failed. His successor, Susan Hawk, resigned this month after seeking medical treatment for depression for the third time in a year. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has yet to appoint a replacement to serve the remainder of her term.
     The great-grandson of Texas oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, Hill sued several of his relatives in county court in 2007 for fraud. He claims to have received no benefits from trusts Hunt set up for his children and that the defendants “have conspired to destroy the trusts” to steal the value of their assets.
     One of Hunt’s 15 children, Lamar Hunt, helped found the American Football League and owned the Dallas Texans, which later became the Kansas City Chiefs of the National Football League. He also helped found Major League Soccer and owned the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas.
     Heiress and philanthropist Margaret Hunt Hill is the namesake of a Santiago Calatrava-designed bridge spanning the Trinity River to the west of downtown Dallas.

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