Donald Varnado Watkins Sr (born September 8, 1948 in Parsons, Kansas) is an attorney, investor and entrepreneur whose net worth, though inconsistently documented, has been estimated to be 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, the former Lillian Bernice Varnado, a schoolteacher and homemaker. Donald's older brothers, Levi Jr and James, both became surgeons. His sisters; Marie, Pearl and Doristine; are a mathematician, musician and grade-school principal respectively. Donald apprenticed for several summers at his grandfather's plumbing company in Clarksville, Tennessee.
Watkins enrolled 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 in 1973 he moved to Montgomery to begin his practice in the office of Fred 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, casting prosecutor Frank Donaldson as the new "Bull Connor". 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 join 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.
On July 31, 1998 Watkins purchased the Baltimore, Maryland-based Pencor Orange Corporation for $600,000, creating Watkins Pencor. Pencor Orange controlled a 25% stake in Pencor Masada OxyNol, a technology company founded by Daryl Harms as an outgrowth of his Masada Resource Group, that was pursuing a municipal waste to ethanol fuel production facility in Middletown, Orange County, New York. Officials from Middletown had toured a demonstration facility in Muscle Shoals and agreed in 1997 to permit the project on a former landfill.
Watkins gained national attention 2002 when he began looking to buy a Major League Baseball team. He inquired 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. Watkins 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 back 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 and portraying prosecutors as part of a government conspiracy. Scrushy was acquitted on all counts. After the trial concluded, Watkins moved to Atlanta, Georgia. He also claimed to have relocated 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 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 Richard Arrington as its first interim director. He also serves on the Board of Directors of State Mutual Insurance Company in Rome, Georgia.
In 2015 Watkins began posting articles on Facebook and later to his personal website detailing, among other things, rumors about a love affair between then Governor Robert Bentley and his assistant, Rebekah Mason. The then-unsubstantiated rumors contributed to public interest in the case, which eventually led to Bentley's resignation. Watkins has continued to publish and has credited attempts to silence him as the root of some of the allegations against him.
Watkins has five children, four (Donald Jr, Drew, Derry and Dustin) by his first wife, DeAndra and one (Claudia) from another relationship.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil suit against Watkins and some of his business ventures alleging that he had defrauded investors, including several professional athletes, by soliciting funds in exchange for "economic interests" in Watkins Pencor or "promissory notes" relating to Masada Resource Group, and then using the money to pay personal debts and fund personal expenses. Among those deposed in that case were former NBA star Charles Barkley, who claimed to have lost more than $6 million to Watkins.
In November 2018 Watkins and his oldest son, Donald Jr, were indicted on federal charges of wire fraud and bank fraud relating to the same allegations. They were also charged with recruiting third parties to take out loans for them from Alamerica Bank. Watkins Sr has elected to represent himself in his defense.
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- "Donald V. Watkins" oral history interview (May 1, 2017) HistoryMakers
- Faulk, Kent (February 6, 2018) "Charles Barkley says he lost $4 million investment with lawyer Donald Watkins." The Birmingham News
- Hrynkiw, Ivana (November 29, 2018) "Donald Watkins and son indicted on federal fraud charges." The Birmingham News
- Gore, Leada (November 29, 2018) "Who is Donald Watkins? Indicted attorney involved in Richard Scrushy case, Auburn NCAA violations." The Birmingham News
- Whitmire, Kyle (November 30, 2018) "Donald Watkins: Ineffable, incorrigible and indicted." The Birmingham News
- Hrynkiw, Ivana (January 4, 2019) "Donald Watkins ditches lawyer, will represent himself." The Birmingham News