Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins’ office used money from an asset-forfeiture fund to pay about $50,000 to the driver of a car that Watkins hit while driving a county-owned vehicle, according to a television station’s report.
The settlement was disclosed Aug. 14 by WFAA-TV, which also reported that Watkins’ office did not follow county policy on handling repairs for the accident last year. Watkins’ office denied it did anything wrong.
Watkins spokeswoman Debbie Denmon said the settlement was handled legally and using money collected through investigations rather than from taxpayers. She said Watkins was on his way to a speech and glancing at his remarks at the time of the wreck.
“There was no secret here. This was out in the open,” Denmon told The Associated Press on Friday. “And there was no duty here to go to the county commissioners, again, because no county funds were used.”
Watkins was driving a county-owned Ford Edge SUV on the Dallas North Tollway in February 2013, when he ran into the back of another vehicle. A police report cited Watkins for “reading information” on his phone at the time of the crash.
Rather than turning the SUV into county employees responsible for repairs, the television station reported, Watkins’ SUV was towed to a body shop, where it remained for five months until it was taken to a private mechanic in Dallas.
The head of Watkins’ civil division, Teresa Guerra Snelson, acknowledged that she didn’t know at the time about county policy on vehicle crashes, but that she notified a county official about the wreck. Denmon said Snelson turned over a police report, but not a specific form for accidents.
“It’s an accident. Accidents happen, and it was handled appropriately and in the normal course of business and within the authority that the DA and I have,” Snelson told WFAA.
Robert Reckendorf, owner of the Parts Express body shop that repaired the vehicle, said the SUV’s frame had been bent and the transmission damaged. He estimated the cost of the work at more than $11,000.
“That should have been one that you don’t want to fix,” he said. “Any insurance company would have told them that.”
The DA’s office eventually settled with the driver for $47,500, and his company for an additional $4,500. The money came from asset forfeiture funds controlled by the district attorney’s office. Use of those funds by prosecutors’ offices has come under scrutiny due to what detractors call a lack of oversight.
Watkins, a Democrat, has won acclaim for his office’s work to free wrongfully convicted inmates. But he has been enmeshed in local controversy over earlier reports of an FBI investigation and complaints that he has mishandled his official duties. He is running for re-election this fall.