The Dallas County district attorney headed off a potentially damaging hearing Monday on whether he committed contempt of court, as his attorneys accused the judge who cited him of musing about serving him "on a silver platter to the FBI."
Craig Watkins could have faced jail time if another judge decided State District Judge Lena Levario was right to cite him for contempt earlier this year. Instead, Watkins' attorneys persuaded Judge Bob Brotherton, of Wichita Falls, to stop the hearing after less than an hour because Levario did not included a punishment for Watkins in her order or a way for him to have the contempt citation lifted.
Before Levario could enter a new order Monday, Watkins' attorneys asked her to recuse herself. A third judge must now decide whether Levario can stay on the case or to assign it to someone else.
Monday's hearings focused on an increasingly bitter fight between Levario, who demanded Watkins answer questions about a case in his office, and prosecutors who argue she was out of place.
Watkins' lawyers on Monday filed a sworn statement from a county employee who claims to have heard Levario in May say she would serve Watkins "on a silver platter to the FBI."
The employee, Jill Reese, says in her statement that she had been demoted and blamed Levario.
"We don't believe that she can be fair and impartial on this issue," said Heath Harris, Watkins' top deputy, who filed his own sworn statement against Levario, saying she is unable to "do something as simple as hold someone in contempt."
Levario said during an afternoon hearing that she hadn't ordered sanctions for Watkins because his other attorneys told her she could not do so, which prosecutors denied.
Watkins faces scrutiny over his office's prosecution of Al Hill III, a great-grandson of the oil titan H.L. Hunt, for mortgage fraud. Hill's attorneys accused Watkins of pushing the case forward as a favor to Lisa Blue, a prominent Dallas attorney and campaign donor.
After Watkins refused earlier this year to answer questions about the case, Levario held him in contempt and dismissed the charges against Hill.
She has also signed an order giving FBI agents access to files in the case, raising the specter of a federal investigation. No charges have been filed, and the FBI has declined to comment.
Watkins' attorneys demanded that Levario recuse herself or ask a higher ranking judge to decide whether she should be replaced. That judge, Regional Administrative Judge John Ovard, said Monday that he wouldn't make a decision until later this week, after Levario refused to step back from the case on her own.
"I gave him a fair trial," Levario said Monday afternoon. "I'm not going to recuse myself."
She declined to answer questions after the hearing.
Watkins became Dallas County's district attorney in 2007 and has won national acclaim for his office's work in freeing the wrongfully convicted, including creating the first conviction integrity unit in Texas. More than 30 inmates wrongly convicted of murders, rapes and other serious crimes have been freed in the last decade, most during Watkins' tenure.
But the contempt allegations and word of the FBI's interest have drawn negative publicity locally and threaten to damage his reputation as an advocate for criminal justice. Watkins is also gearing up to run for re-election next year.