Arguments set in Dallas DA's contempt hearing


A judge on Monday denied requests by Craig Watkins' attorneys to have the judge who cited him earlier this year for contempt removed from the case and for the contempt citation to be dismissed. Judge Lena Levario, who held Watkins in contempt, said afterward that she would sign a new order that allows a third judge to hear the contempt case and decide at a hearing whether to uphold it.

If he's found guilty, Watkins faces up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. The case for which he was held in contempt also has attracted the attention of the FBI, which has asked for access to files.

Watkins refused in March to answer allegations that his office prosecuted an heir to an oil fortune as a favor to a friend and campaign donor. Levario held him in contempt and threw out the mortgage fraud cases against the heir, Al Hill III.

At Watkins' request, Judge Bob Brotherton of Wichita Falls was appointed to decide whether Watkins was guilty of contempt and what, if any, punishment was deserved. He was expected to hear from both sides at a hearing last week.

Instead, he ended the hearing after about half an hour after agreeing with Watkins' attorneys that Levario's order was flawed because it didn't immediately set a punishment for the district attorney. When Levario was asked to sign a new order with a punishment, Watkins' attorneys then asked a supervising judge to replace her, accusing her of bias.

They pointed to comments Levario allegedly made in May that she would serve Watkins to the FBI on a "silver platter" and that he needed to be knocked off his pedestal. One recently fired county employee testified hearing the comments at lunch with the judge. But two others eating lunch with the group that day said they did not remember her making them.

Bob Hinton, who argued against removing Levario, said afterward Monday that prosecutors had "a core interest here to try to get Craig Watkins' head out of the noose -- a comment Watkins spokeswoman Debbie Denmon called "highly inappropriate" and racially tinged.

"They think that if they can disqualify Judge Levario, then that's the end of the contempt matter," Hinton said. "But that's not the case."

Russell Wilson, a Dallas prosecutor who is helping to defend Watkins, said he would not appeal Monday's ruling and looked forward to "a resolution of this case on the merits."

Wilson said the contempt fight hadn't had a significant impact on the daily work of the district attorney's office, one of the largest in the country. "Obviously, it takes away from what we would rather be doing," he added.

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