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Dallas D.A. Forfeiture Funds: The Temptation of All That Stuff and the Craig Watkins Scandal

Here in Dallas, more and more people are aware of how government authorities have been seizing property from people without sufficient judicial process and keeping those assets for their own uses. This is good because forfeiture is a big problem that not enough folk realize exists.

We’ve been discussing this problem — the problem of “civil forfeiture” — for awhile now: all that stuff setting there is very tempting to some. There’s the reality of police taking the assets (the due process issue). And there’s the temptation problem, where law enforcement takes this stuff for personal use.

 

Forfeiture accounts can hold millions in cash as well as property like cars, guns, and jewelry.

 

This isn’t a new story. There’s so much money in these forfeiture accounts, and very little oversight. Example: the head prosecutor over Brooks County and Jim Wells County agreed to return millions of dollars he’d swiped out of those two county forfeiture accounts in a case that made the news over five years ago. See, “Texas DA Pleads Guilty To Felonies: Will Serve Jail Time, Pay Fine – And Return $2.16 Million He Took.”

Dallas D.A. Craig Watkins Use of Forfeiture Stuff: Rear Ending a Pickup in a Forfeited Ford

Meanwhile, Dallas County has been schooled in how forfeiture can equal profit in the story of our recent District Attorney, Craig Watkins, and how many attribute his use of forfeiture assets as one of the big reasons that he lost the recent D.A. election to newcomer Susan Hawk.

As the Dallas Morning News points out, Watkins not only was the incumbent but a Democrat running in a solidly blue jurisdiction. The tipping point, as the News sees it, is Watkins’ use of a car taken in a forfeiture action and being involved in a traffic accident while using that vehicle. (Watkins hit a pickup on the Dallas North Tollway while driving a Ford SUV that was a Dallas County forfeiture asset.)

Watkins’ controversy not only includes using the seized car for a drive with his son, and getting into a wreck, but the settlement of that accident. It’s reported that he settled the case secretly, paying the pickup truck driver $50,000 and then spending another $11,000 to fix the car he was driving.

Key here: this was all forfeiture money; Watkins didn’t pay out of his own bank account.

And as part of the deal, the pickup truck driver had to sign a confidentiality agreement where he wouldn’t talk to anyone — especially the media — about the crash or the settlement. If the driver breached the deal, he agreed in the contract to pay a fee personally to Craig Watkins for talking about the things for which he had agreed to keep silent.

Watkins’ spending $66,000 to solve the problem of his crashing a forfeiture asset — and getting that Keep it Secret contract to go along with the money — didn’t stay buried, of course. However, Mr. Watkins argued that he didn’t have to share what happened with the public (or County Commissioners) because he wasn’t spending tax dollars here and in his legal opinion, he was well within his legal rights to act as he did, as the district attorney overseeing these funds.

So Far, 3 Different Audits of Dallas County’s Forfeiture Scheme

There’s been a lot of bookkeeping experts looking into the Dallas County District Attorney’s filing cabinets and hard drives in the past few months. All because of suspicions that forfeiture funds have been misspent.

1. State of Texas Audit

Right now, there is a first-of-its-kind audit into Watkins’ use of forfeiture assets going on by the State of Texas’ Auditor’s Office.

Workers from the Auditor’s Office have reportedly been sifting through the files down at the Office of the Dallas County District Attorney’s office for a few weeks now. It’s the first time that the state auditor has ever undertaken an audit to look for possible fraud and abuse.

Seems the State Auditor has been spurred to action because of the car crash fiasco.

2. Justice Department Audit

This audit comes after a federal investigation by the Department of Justice was announced last November. Story there is that the Justice Department discovered some questionable entries into the records over how federal forfeiture funds had been spent by the Dallas District Attorneys’ Office, they started their own audit into how federal seized assets were being used here.

And they cut off Craig Watkins’ office from any federal forfeiture funds/assets while their “compliance review” aka audit was being done.

The federal audit was sparked separately from the Watkins’ car accident.

3. Dallas County Audit

There was also an audit by the Dallas County Auditor last fall that resulted in the conclusion that there lots of expenditures out of the Dallas County Forfeiture Fund which were “unclear” if they were done for law enforcement reasons. This was the annual audit that is done every year by the county.

Dallas DA Has Two Forfeiture Pies: Federal and State

Since the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office works with federal law enforcement on joint operations (think task forces), the forfeiture process allows for the federal agencies to share with wealth of forfeiture seizures with Dallas County’s D.A. So, Watkins was the Big Kahuna over all that federal cash and property that was seized by the feds and shared with the DA’s office.

There’s a separate and independent state forfeiture fund made up of money and property that has been seized in non-federal forfeiture actions, ones that are allowed under Texas statutes.

So, Watkins had the opportunity to use funds and assets (like that car) from two fat forfeiture funds. And he apparently took advantage of that opportunity — we just don’t know the extent of it yet.

Will New State Forfeiture Laws Stop Abuse? Why Not Outlaw Forfeitures?

Out of all this, there are bills being presented down in Austin to change things regarding forfeiture actions — but it’s not to stop forfeitures as much as it is to try and increase bookkeeping oversight of what happens to all this stuff.

For example, there are two bills in the House (HB 249; HB 472) would make the forfeiture fund accounts overseen by any state district attorney available for public view at any time.

There’s also a state senate bill (SB 95) that would change the burden of proof that the government has to meet in forfeiture cases from the current “preponderance of the evidence” standard to the higher “clear and convincing standard,” insofar as proving that the assets were connected with criminal activity.

Think this is really going to stop the kind of shenanigans that law enforcement gets into with forfeitures? We’re talking millions and millions in these forfeiture funds. So, so tempting for law enforcement officials to grab some of it, right?

Here’s an alternative: follow the example of New Mexico, which has passed new legislation that outlaws civil forfeiture in that state.

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For more about forfeitures, check out the following as well as Michael Lowe’s Case Results:


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