Birmingham, Ala. (WIAT) — Donald Watkins Sr.’s reputation precedes him in Birmingham. Prior to his conviction on federal fraud charges, Watkins Sr. made legal history when he won an acquittal for HealthSouth founder Richard Scrushy in the Department of Justice’s first prosecution under the 2002 Sarbanes Oxley Act.
As a civil rights attorney or hired legal gun for Birmingham’s first African-American Mayor, his has been a love-hate relationship with the place called the Magic City.
Early in his tenure with the city, Watkins was criticized. “People would say, ‘he’s making all that money off the City of Birmingham.’ What they didn’t realize is Birmingham was self-insured. They didn’t have no big insurance company writing checks for Birmingham. It was cheaper to pay me than to pay the $200 million in exposure it had in the 74 cases that I had. And so, they didn’t have to pay out in my cases. Just pay me and I’ll make sure you don’t have to pay out the bigger things….so anywhere else that’s called a bargain. In Birmingham that’s called controversial,” Watkins explained.
Controversial or not Watkins made Birmingham a place of opportunity for himself, from the moment he approached Mayor Richard Arrington Jr. about a job.
“My old man got the appointment for me,” Watkins said. The late Levi Watkins Sr. was President of Alabama State University at the time that Richard Arrington Jr. was heading the Alabama Center for Higher Education.
After serving one term on the Montgomery City Council beginning in 1979, Watkins was ready to make a change.
“I left the city council in Montgomery ’cause I wanted to come to Birmingham. Because it was where the action was. It was the big city. Arrington Jr. was the Mayor. He was catching hell. Everything he did was challenged.”
By then Watkins had already made a name for himself as an attorney.
As he writes on his website, by 1976 he had fought for “two long and heartbreaking years to secure” the pardon of Clarence Norris. At the time, Norris was the last living of the so called, “Scottsboro Boys” . Eventually all nine of the men would be granted a pardon in their convictions on false rape charges dating back to 1931, in a racially segregated Alabama.
Watkins had also shown he was not afraid to challenge long held norms regarding police treatment of African Americans during the Montgomery police killing of Bernard Whitehurst in 1975. The victim’s mother hired Watkins who uncovered a police cover up in Whitehurst’s death.
In 2015 Watkins wrote about his role pursuing justice for Whitehurst in the New York Daily News. By the time it was over Montgomery’s mayor had resigned, “About 10 cops lost their jobs” and the head of Montgomery’s police department retired.
As Watkins recollected, all the boards in the city that had never been autonomous before, now wanted autonomy. “I knew it was a shot gun marriage with the business community and it was uncomfortable. A lot of difficult moments”, Watkins said.
Watkins’ father set up the meeting where Watkins pitched Arrington Jr. on how he could be of service.
“He was polite, but he was busy”, Watkins said of Arrington Jr..
Watkins didn’t waste time getting to the point.
“I said, I see you getting your butt kicked all day long. I said when you are up at two or three in the morning, getting your butt kicked, who do you call for help?” Watkins said he didn’t have an answer. I told him want to be that guy. That’s how I got [the job as Richard Arrington Jr.’s attorney]. He hand-wrote my retainer agreement out right there on the spot.”
Donald Watkins came to Birmingham to work with Richard Arrington Jr. during his second term as Mayor in 1985. The two worked together in city government for 14 years.
“We had a great time using what I called power politics to advance the agenda for the constituents who elected him.” Their efforts were buoyed by the Jefferson County Citizens Coalition. “It handled the political side of progress in Birmingham, while the Arrington administration handled the actual function of government.”
Watkins said, “We had a good relationship. We still do. He’s a business partner.”
Richard Arrington Jr. was granted immunity to testify for the prosecution in the Donald Watkins Federal Fraud trial.