Courtroom Drama

Dallas DA Craig Watkins loses motion to recuse judge in contentious contempt case

Dallas DA Craig Watkins loses motion to recuse judge in contempt case

On July 22, judge John Ovard ruled the contempt case against Dallas district attorney Craig Watkins will continue under judge Lena Levario. The contentious case has been winding its way through the court system since March, when Levario held Watkins in contempt for his refusal to testify in a mortgage fraud case against Hunt oil heir Albert Hill III.

Hill claims that Watkins brought charges against him as a favor to attorney Lisa Blue, who once represented Hill against his father but later sued him to recover millions of dollars in legal fees. When Watkins refused to testify about his role in the case, Levario dismissed the felony charges against Hill and held the district attorney in contempt. 

 ​"There's no sideshow," said Russell Wilson, Watkins' attorney. "This is serious business." 

Fraught with drama and legal maneuvering, the case is nowhere near finished. However, the DA's office has said it will not appeal Ovard's ruling.

Watkins' team of attorneys, led by Russell Wilson, had argued that Levario was biased against the district attorney and therefore unfit to oversee a contempt charge against him. After the ruling, Wilson said he can live with Ovard's decision not to recuse Levario, but that's as far as it goes.

"What we can't live with is a wrongful finding of contempt," Wilson told reporters outside the courtroom. 

The contempt charge is now punted back to Levario, who must asses a punishment ranging from zero to six months in jail and up to a $500 fine. Levario has said publicly that she is only seeking a monetary punishment. 

Once Levario hands down a punishment, the charge will go before judge Bob Brotherton, who could decide to uphold the contempt charge or dismiss it. 

Wilson denied that the motion to recuse Levario — which included sworn affidavits from county officials alleging misconduct — was part of a "sideshow" intended to deflect attention away from Watkins and onto other city officials. 

"There's no sideshow," Wilson said. "This is serious business." 

Attorney Bob Hinton represented Levario in the hearing in Ovard's court. He argued passionately for his client to remain on the case. 

"Judge Levario has done the right thing, and she has been whipsawed," Hinton said during closing arguments. He characterized the accusations of bias as "ridiculous and absurd." 

"Why was the DA's office trying to discredit her?" Hinton asked after Ovard's ruling. "They were trying to get the DA's head out of the noose."

Dallas district attorney Craig Watkins
The contempt case against Dallas DA Craig Watkins will continue under judge Lena Levario. Dallas South News
Media swarm attorney Bob Hinton
Bob Hinton, attorney for judge Lena Levario, addresses reporters outside the courtroom July 22.  Photo by Claire St. Amant