Monday, April 19, 2010

Dallas DA Watkins still battling commissioners over legal representation

The power struggle between District Attorney Craig Watkins and county commissioners over who should represent the county in lawsuits is continuing, as Attorney General Greg Abbott mulls over which one is right.

The commissioners recently tried to remove Watkins' civil lawyers from a lawsuit against the county. But Watkins has fought back, saying the commissioners have no right to choose the lawyer(s) to defend the county in the case.

Watkins and the commissioners disagree over who is responsible under the law for selecting attorneys to represent the county in lawsuits. The commissioners say they can do it while Watkins says only he can select outside lawyers if the commissioners decide to go that route.

The commissioners recently asked for an attorney general's opinion on the matter. It's still pending.

The lawsuit in question was filed by several affiliated companies that say the county didn't follow competitive bidding requirements when it awarded a $17.3 million records preservation contract last year.

Bob Schell, chief of the DA's civil division, assumed the role of defense attorney for the county as he has countless times in routine legal matters. When the county lost its attempt to get the lawsuit thrown out, commissioners decided to appeal District Judge Bruce Priddy's ruling.

But in an unusual April 7 letter to Schell, the commissioners informed him they were hiring Dallas lawyer Marc Richman to handle the appeal.

"As of are to no longer represent Dallas County in the above-referenced lawsuit," the letter said. "We have engaged Marc Richman as our lawyer and only he will speak and represent Dallas County in this lawsuit. Your services are no longer needed or desired, so cease your representation immediately."

Commissioners did indeed hire Richman.

And nine days later, on April 16, Schell filed a motion asking Richman to appear in court to explain what authority he is using to represent Dallas County in the appeal.

Schell's motion says Richman's representation is a violation of the Texas Local Government Code because Watkins "neither selected Mr. Richman nor determined the terms and duration of his employment."

Schell says in his motion that the DA's Office continued to represent the county in the case until Richman showed up on April 9 saying he was the county's lawyer.

"It is Mr. Watkins' statutory duty to select special counsel to represent Dallas County in any lawsuit brought by or against Dallas County...Mr. Richman has no authority to make an appearance on behalf of Dallas County," Schell said in his motion.

With a $55 million budget shortfall looming and budget talks already underway, this power struggle isn't going to diminish. Watkins fiercely fought budget cuts last year, and he's already indicated he plans to do so again this year.

Commissioners, meanwhile, decided to hire their own lawyer -- former Tarrant County Judge Bob McGrath.

By Kevin Krause



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