A decision on whether Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins should be held in contempt for refusing to testify during a criminal proceeding was delayed on July 15, after his lawyers won a ruling that the contempt order was not specific enough. Watkins also moved to recuse the judge who held him in contempt.
In March, Watkins refused to testify in a hearing before 204th District Court Judge Lena Levario, in which wealthy Dallas heir Albert G. Hill III sought to have several mortgage fraud indictments against him quashed. Hill alleged the criminal charges were the result of influence allegedly exerted on Watkins by Hill's former civil lawyer Lisa Blue Baron, with whom Hill has a multimillion-dollar attorney-fee dispute. Levario ultimately dismissed the charges against Hill. [See "State Judge Dismisses Fraud Indictments Against Albert G. Hill III, Holds Dallas DA Craig Watkins in Contempt" Texas Lawyer, March 8, 2013, page 1.]
After Levario held Watkins in contempt, John Ovard, presiding judge of the 1st Administrative Judicial Region of Texas, appointed 30th District Court Judge Bob Brotherton of Wichita Falls to hearwhether Watkins should be held in contempt.
On July 12, Watkins filed a plea to the jurisdiction motion, arguing that Brotherton did not have the authority to hear the contempt matter, because Levario's order did not assess a punishment for Watkins' refusal to testify.
During the hearing, Levario testified briefly about her contempt finding. While on the witness stand, Levario stated that she did not assess a punishment against Watkins.
Ron Poole, a special prosecutor appointed by Brotherton to handle the contempt motion, argued during the July 15 hearing that Watkins got what he wanted when his lawyers told Levario during the March hearing that she didn't need to assess a punishment with her contempt finding.
"He has requested that it be sent to another judge for a hearing without punishment. And now he's saying, 'Because I requested that and asked that punishment not be assessed, that ought to be found in my favor.' And that's not what the law is. He's got what he asked for," Poole argued during the hearing.
Scottie Allen, a Dallas solo who represents Watkins, argued that the special prosecutors could not overcome the fact that the contempt order was not specific enough for Brotherton to consider.
"What they cannot overcome is the fact that that order stating contempt has to be specific and unambiguous. It's stated in the law. It cannot contain any defects," Allen argued. "He [Watkins] as a respondent has to be placed on notice."
Brotherton sustained Watkins' plea to the jurisdiction "until an order is entered by Judge Levario which specifies the punishment within the order itself."
Within hours of Brotherton's ruling, Watkins filed a motion to recuse Levario from the proceedings. The recusal motion includes two affidavits, one of which is from Dallas County Assistant DA Heath Harris, who alleges that Levario had "personally attempted to insert herself into the litigation" regarding Watkins' contempt hearing.
Harris, who represents Watkins in the contempt proceeding, alleged in his affidavit that, prior to the hearing, Levario went into Brotherton's chambers and "attempted to argue to Judge Brotherton regarding the merits of the plea to the jurisdiction."
"It is clear that Lena Levario whether as a Judge or as an individual has demonstrated (a) personal basis that makes her incapable of being fair and impartial as it relates to Craig Watkins (b) a personal interest in the outcome of the case," Harris wrote.
Harris alleges in an interview that Levario made inappropriate comments about the case during a pretrial meeting with Brotherton and the parties in the case.
"We're all back there, and she starts talking about the facts of the case and evidence," Harris says.
The recusal motion also contained an affidavit from Jill H. Reese, a Dallas County employee. In Reese's affidavit, she alleges that, in May at a fast food restaurant, Levario stated to Reese that Levario was "going to serve Craig Watkins Dallas County District Attorney up on a silver platter to the F.B.I."
Reese also alleged in her affidavit that Levario stated to her that "all you have to have is enough money to have the right attorneys with the right relationships to control the outcome of a court case in any courtroom including mine."
Reese also alleged that she was later demoted in her position with Dallas County, which resulted in a cut in pay. "I know for certain that Judge Lena Levario is behind this," Reese stated in her affidavit.
Watkins declines comment, and Reese did not return a call for comment.
During another hearing later on July 15, Levario declined to recuse herself from the case and referred the matter to Ovard for further consideration.
"Let's get Judge Ovard on the phone and run it up," Levario said during the hearing. "I'm not voluntarily recusing."
The hearing was brief.
"Then we are recessed. I am anxious to dispose of this matter quickly," Levario said at the conclusion of the hearing.
Ovard scheduled a hearing for the recusal motion on July 19, after Texas Lawyer's presstime.
After the hearing in Levario's court, Robert Hinton of Dallas' Robert Hinton & Associates, another special prosecutor appointed by Brotherton to handle the contempt proceeding against Watkins, said the recusal motion was not warranted.
"It seems to be a random array of irrelevant complaints that I don't think add up to anything, but we'll see what Judge Ovard has to say about that," Hinton says. "His opinion is the only one that really counts," Hinton adds.