New Dallas D.A.-Texas Lawyer
Craig Watkins didn’t wait until he was sworn in as the newly elected Dallas County District Attorney on Jan. 1 to begin molding his staff of more than 225 lawyers to blend with his prosecutorial philosophy. Less than a week earlier, eight top-level prosecutors were given their walking papers, and more than a dozen lawyers were either told they would be brought in as new hires or promoted from within.
The firings came as a shock to some, who recall that Watkins, only weeks before, had told them he would not be making any major personnel changes. “I don’t think it is surprising that a new DA would come in and make personnel changes,” says the outgoing Felony Trial Bureau Chief Toby Shook, whom Watkins defeated on Nov. 7 and who is leaving the office voluntarily. “What people are surprised at is the timing — being so close to him taking office. The general atmosphere was that there would not be any major changes.” But those changes came nonetheless.
On Dec. 26, Watkins came to the district attorney’s office, along with several members of his transition committee — state Sen. Royce West, Watkins’ campaign manager Gloria James and Dallas solo Anthony Lyons. “They gave administrative division chief Kim Gilles 13 sealed envelopes with the names of people who were no longer needed,” says Rachel Raya, the DA’s departing public information officer. “Four or five of these had already resigned.”
Among those who received pink slips were Gary Arey, the chief of the DA’s juvenile division. Until he got his envelope, Arey did not know he would be let go. “It was not expected,” Arey says. On the contrary, in early December, Watkins had met with Arey and a group of DA section heads, Arey says, and Watkins told him he could expect to stay. But three days after Christmas, Arey was looking for a job.
Others let go include top-level division chiefs in the DA’s office, including Tom D’Amore and Howard Blackmon, as well as child abuse chief prosecutor Patricia Hogue and public integrity chief Pat Batchelor, along with misdemeanor deputy chiefs Libby Smith, Chrissi Gumbert and Kristine Primrose. Among those terminated were some of the most talented lawyers in the office, says Raya. Only Arey and Primrose returned a telephone call to their offices by presstime. Primrose says she has no hard feelings about the situation. Watkins also did not return a telephone call. But Lyons, who is chairman of Watkins’ transition team, confirms these firings, brushing aside rumors that Watkins targeted anyone as political payback. But with the courthouse community being small, these fears and rumors spread easily after the election.
After all, Shook had developed a veritable political machine of prosecutors who supported his candidacy without hesitation, canvassing neighborhoods and manning phone banks, convinced that Watkins’ experience as a Dallas criminal defense attorney paled by comparison to Shook, a respected 22-year prosecutorial veteran. How easy would it have been for Watkins to remember those who had opposed him?
“Immediately after the election, there was fear that there were going to be wholesale firings,” recalls David Finn, a partner in Dallas’ Milner & Finn and a longtime friend of Watkins. “Prosecutors were afraid that the sky was going to fall in, but I told them that wasn’t going to happen.” Finn believes Watkins steadied himself by his first two hires: Terri Moore, his new first assistant, who served as a former deputy chief of the criminal division in the Tarrant County DA’s office; and Kevin Brooks, a well respected Dallas criminal defense attorney, who will take Shook’s place as felony trial bureau chief. “Terri Moore is an absolute firecracker,” says Finn. “She will be very much involved in the training of young prosecutors, so you won’t have to untrain them of bad habits. And Kevin Brooks is unflappable. I have been in court with all hell breaking loose, and he is the one person unfazed by the drama.”
In addition to these, Lyons says, Watkins has commitments from at least a dozen new hires and promotions from within and outside the office. Offers were only made to these after an exhaustive “intellectual process” finding those who fit within Watkins’ prosecutorial philosophy. “Ultimately Craig’s theory of a DA’s office is one that runs ethically, professionally and efficiently,” says Lyons. Attitudes favoring the production of Brady material, the promotion of rehabilitation as well as punishment, and the avoidance of racial bias in jury selection were important to Watson and must be important to the lawyers who work for him, says Lyons. Diversity was another important hiring consideration, says Lyon. “Craig believes that the minority community was primarily responsible for electing him, and he feels a responsibility for reflecting that with a more diverse office,” says Lyons. “In the past, with more than 230 lawyers, there were less than 20 minority prosecutors. The office is already more diversified than it ever was with these new hires.”
Among the new hires, says Lyons, is Dallas solo and former prosecutor Julius Whittier, who will serve as a superchief over eight criminal district courts. Whittier says he intends to help Watkins but would not confirm that he has accepted a job with him. “Watkins has made it clear that there [are] not going to be any ethical problems on his watch,” says George Milner III, a partner in Dallas’ Milner & Finn and a member of Watkins’ transition team. “His philosophy is to focus on reducing recidivism, and we should see more emphasis on rehabilitation and treatment.”
Because many within the old guard may be uncomfortable with this philosophical shift, Lyons anticipates more pink slips will follow. “We will have conversations with personnel who haven’t been spoken with,” says Lyons. “Once we talk to these people, and they tell us they are in agreement with Craig’s philosophy, Craig is going to put the past behind us and go forward.”