Donald V. Watkins, Sr (born September 8, 1948 in Parsons, Kansas) is an attorney, investor and entrepreneur whose net worth has been estimated as high as $1.5 billion. He was one of the first African Americans to graduate from the University of Alabama School of Law and worked as Birmingham's city attorney under Mayor Richard Arrington.
Watkins grew up as the fifth of sixth children of the late Levi Watkins, longtime president of Alabama State University, and his wife, Lillian, a schoolteacher and homemaker. The pursuit of worthy goals was emphasized in the Watkins family. Donald's older brothers, Levi Jr and James are both surgeons. His sisters Marie, Pearl and Doristine are a mathemetician, musician and grade-school principal respectively. Donald apprenticed for several summers at his grandfather's plumbing company in Clarksville, Tennessee.
Watkins entered school at Southern Illinois University intending to become an architect, but switched and entered law school at Howard University in 1970. He transferred to Alabama on an NAACP scholarship, becoming a member of the second integrated class in law school there. After graduating he moved to Montgomery to begin his practice in the office of Fred D. Gray. As a young lawyer he convinced a state parole board and Governor George Wallace to pardon Clarence Norris, the last of the "Scottsboro Boys" convicted of rape under questionable circumstances in 1931. Shortly thereafter he won a seat in the Montgomery City Council where he frequently clashed with Mayor Emory Folmar. Nevertheless, Folmar later hired Watkins as city attorney.
In 1979 Watkins founded his own practice. Beginning in 1985 Watkins began serving as special counsel to Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, defending the city against lawsuits as well as representing Arrington during federal corruption investigations that he claims were racially-motivated. As city attorney, Watkins' trial record was 37 victories in 38 cases, during which time he earned nearly $10 million in fees from the city.
In 1990 Watkins offered to defuse the controversy surrounding the Shoal Creek Golf Club whose all-white membership attracted criticism during its hosting of the 1990 PGA Tournament. The club instead invited Booker T. Washington Insurance Company president Louis Willie to accept an honorary membership.
In 1996 Watkins founded Watkins Pencor, a global energy investment company. In 1998 it purchased a major equity stake in Daryl Harms' Masada Oxynol, a technology company spun off from the Masada Resource Group that was pursuing ways to use municipal waste in ethanol fuel production. Failing to acquire the necessary approvals in Alabama, the company has pursued its first facility in Middletown, New York.
He gained national attention 2002 when he began looking to buy a Major League Baseball team. He enquired about the Tampa Bay Devil Rays first, then proposed buying the Montreal Expos and moving them to Washington D. C. Soon later he entered in negotiations with Carl Pohlad to purchase the Minnesota Twins for $150 million. He offered to build a new $350 million retractable-roof ballpark and entertainment district in Minneapolis without taxpayer funding as part of the deal, but questions about his ability to raise the cash led the team to drop out. In April he offered $200 million for the Anaheim Angels.
Though he had retired from active practice in 1999, Watkins agreed, at Richard Arrington's suggestion, to take the helm of the legal team defending HealthSouth founder and CEO Richard Scrushy on federal fraud charges under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2003. His pro-active, multi-armed strategy involved appealing to jurors in the terms of the Civil Rights struggle. Scrushy was acquitted on all counts. After the trial concluded, Watkins moved to Miami, Florida in order to gain "access to international players."
In 2006 Watkins, who had left the Democratic party to become an independent in 1998, launched the Voter News Network which called for voters to choose candidates based on their qualifications rather than party affiliation. In 2016 he used Facebook to publish "insider" accounts of improprieties in Governor Robert Bentley's administration and personal life.
He also launched the Children's Bank, which provides investment capital for business plans drawn up by children under 18 years of age. In February 2008 Watkins took control of a 77% stake in the troubled Tradewinds Airlines by agreeing to guarantee $30 million in loans from the airline to two Detroit municipal pension funds and to invest $10 million in the company. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in July 2008, after Watkins was sued by the pension funds for allegedly failing to live up to his agreements. Watkins claims that fund officials wrongly claimed default after he refused unethical requests for cash and the use of aircraft.
In 2012 Watkins' Nabirm LLC, a subdivision of his Masada Resource Group, signed an exclusive contract with the government of Namibia to mine and sell uranium from that country. In 2016 the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a criminal complaint against Watkins in federal district court claiming that he fraudulently solicited millions of dollars from professional athletes as investments in Masada Resource Group and Watkins Pencor. The SEC alleges that he made false and misleading claims about the companies and used the investment funds for personal expenses, including alimony payments. He has denied those charges.
Watkins is a member of a of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and serves on the Board of Trustees for Alabama State University. As a trustee he helped to create the University's "Center for Leadership and Public Policy", which hired Arrington as its first interim director. He also serves on the Board of Directors of State Mutual Insurance Company in Rome, Georgia.
Watkins has five children, four (Donald Jr, Drew, Derry and Dustin) by his first wife, DeAndra and one (Claudia) from another relationship.
- Donald Watkins P.C. website
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- Nightengale, Bon (January 29, 2002) "Watkins hopes to make successful family an empire." USA Today Baseball Weekly. - accessed August 13, 2007
- Bredemeier, Kenneth (May 15, 2002) "A Wealth of Questions About Watkins." Washington Post - accessed August 13, 2007
- Reeves, Jay (January 12, 2002) "A knack for confrontation". Associated Press
- Burke, Monte (April 1, 2002) "Show Me the Money". Forbes - accessed August 13, 2007
- Rovell, Darren (September 4, 2002) "Would-be owner says he's still a player". ESPN Sports Business. - accessed August 13, 2007
- Helyar, John (July 25, 2005) "The Man Who Saved Richard Scrushy". Fortune. - accessed August 13, 2007
- Cunningham, Malena (October 7, 2005) "Donald Watkins moves to Miami, joins the 'titans'." Birmingham Business Journal
- "Donald Watkins" (August 13, 2007) Wikipedia - accessed August 14, 2007
- Diel, Stan (July 29, 2008) "Former Birmingham lawyer Donald Watkins' Tradewinds Airlines files bankruptcy." The Birmingham News
- Diel, Stan (October 7, 2008) "Donald Watkins says pension fund officials asked for cash and use of his jet." The Birmingham News
- Archibald, John (September 1, 2016) "Feds: Attorney Donald Watkins bilked millions from NFL, NBA players." The Birmingham News