Courtroom Drama

Dallas district attorney Craig Watkins says judge who held him in contempt is biased

Dallas DA Craig Watkins says judge who held him in contempt is biased

Amid allegations of his own misconduct, Dallas district attorney Craig Watkins is slinging some mud at judge Lena Levario. The Dallas County district judge dismissed mortgage fraud charges against Hunt oil heir Albert Hill III in March after Watkins refused to testify about how and why he brought the indictment against Hill. 

The district attorney’s office had argued that Hill misrepresented his ownership of a Highland Park home to obtain a $500,000 loan from Omni American Bank. Hill has since repaid the loan, and the bank never complained about it. 

Hill claims that Watkins brought charges against him due to Watkins' cozy relationship with attorney Lisa Blue, who once represented Hill against his father but later sued him to recover millions of dollars in legal fees. 

 Dallas County employee Jill Reese alleges judge Lena Levario said she "was going to serve Craig Watkins up on a silver platter to the FBI."

When Watkins was called to the stand in March and declined to testify about his role, Levario held him in contempt, setting off a new series of legal battles for the city's highest prosecutor. A week after Levario issued an order of contempt, reports surfaced of an FBI corruption probe into Watkins' office. 

On July 15, judge Bob Brotherton ordered Levario to set a punishment for Watkins, ranging from zero to six months in jail and up to a $500 fine. Levario held a hearing at 1:30 pm the same day and appeared ready to issue a punishment for Watkins, but she never got the chance.

Watkins' attorney, Russell Wilson, filed a motion to recuse Levario from the contempt case on the grounds that she was biased against the district attorney. To prove this allegation, Wilson offered two sworn affidavits alleging misconduct by Levario.  

The first is from Dallas County employee Jill Reese, who swears that in May, Levario told her she "was going to serve Craig Watkins up on a silver platter to the FBI" while the two women dined at a Subway in Fort Worth.

Reese also alleges that Levario said, "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 says she was demoted and her salary cut in half shortly after Levario's alleged statements. "I believe this is an attempt to silence and discredit me," Reese says in her affidavit. 

The second affidavit disparaging Levario is from Dallas attorney Heath Harris. He alleges that Levario acted improperly and tried to sway Brotherton's ruling on the contempt order against Watkins. Harris says that Levario "has demonstrated a personal bias that makes her incapable of being fair and impartial as it relates to Craig Watkins," and that she has "a personal interest" in the outcome of the case. 

As the matter was discussed before Levario's court, the judge appeared equal parts bemused and incredulous, at one point rolling her eyes and saying "Wow. Incredible." 

Levario refused to voluntarily recuse herself from the case, saying, "I gave [Watkins] a fair trial." She passed the buck to judge John Ovard, who handles administrative matters for the region. Ovard will rule on whether or not Levario can preside over the contempt case. 

"I'm anxious to dispose of this matter quickly," Levario said as she left the bench. 

Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins
Dallas district attorney Craig Watkins. Photo by Claire St. Amant
Lisa Blue Baron
Attorney Lisa Blue once represented Al Hill III, who asserts that Watkins brought charges against him as a favor to Blue. Photo by Marty Perlman