Unwilling to quit a job she’s held for more than 20 years, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes signaled she will take her criminal corruption case to trial this fall as she declined a take-it-or-leave-it offer Tuesday to step down from office.
The Travis County district attorney’s office had offered to drop all 15 charges filed against the Austin Democrat, most of them felonies, on the condition that she resign, pay $3,500 in fines and submit to a drug and alcohol assessment.
District Attorney Margaret Moore pulled the offer when she hadn’t heard from Dukes’ attorneys by 5 p.m.
“The offer to resolve this matter has expired and is no longer available,” Moore said in a statement. “We will be ready for trial.”
Dukes declined to discuss the matter when approached earlier in the day at the Capitol.
“Everybody will know when they know,” she said.
Dukes stayed true to her word from earlier this summer when she told reporters that she wouldn’t accept any plea deal, that she is innocent and that she looks forward to presenting her side of the story at trial on Oct. 16.
And what’s her side? “That I’m not guilty,” she said.
Dukes was given until the end of the workday Tuesday to resign and avoid possible jail time. She rejected a similar deal in January before the start of the legislative session, reneging on an earlier promise to resign that she had made to her constituents. That shift prompted the DA’s office to take the case to a grand jury in January, which resulted in the 15-count indictment.
In a statement issued late Tuesday, her attorney, Rene Oliveira, a state Democratic representative from Brownsville, called a condition in the deal that Dukes be assessed for drug and alcohol issues “unacceptable” and “absurd.”
“Because of certain communication issues with her attorneys, my client just received the recent proposal via letter on Monday, July 31, 2017,” Oliveira said. “Ms. Dukes again strongly reiterates her innocence and rejects the latest proposal which has an even more unacceptable condition than the previously rejected proposals. The inexplicable request that she undergo some drug assessment is absurd, and shame on the DA’s office for even suggesting such a condition. Neither Ms. Dukes, nor her attorneys, have any further comment on this matter, and she looks forward to her day in court.”
Dukes has tabbed Oliveira to apparently replace two Houston attorneys who last week filed a motion to withdraw from the case over poor communication with Dukes.
There is nothing in the settlement offer that would have prevented Dukes, a 12-term District 46 representative, from running again in 2018 after stepping down. Dukes has suggested she intends to keep her seat and will oppose Sheryl Cole, Chito Vela and others in the Democratic primary. Yet a felony conviction could effectively kill her political career and keep Dukes, 53, from running next year. Regardless, many local Democrats say they want her out, but have been met with resistance by Vincent Harding, chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party.
The DA’s office says it has pulled the settlement offer for good and will prepare to prosecute Dukes on 13 felony counts and two misdemeanors. Combined, the charges could carry a maximum sentence of 28 years in jail.
Under the offer — which the American-Statesman reported first on Monday — Moore agreed to drops all charges if Dukes had:
• Resigned immediately.
• Submitted to a drug and alcohol assessment and completed any treatment and counseling recommended as a result of the assessment. In a March 29 meeting of the House Appropriations Committee, Dukes showed up late and, after posing a rambling question, referred to medication she was on — “I know I’m talking a lot. I’m full of morphine and will be headed out of here soon,” she said.
• Paid $3,000 in restitution related to charges of tampering with governmental records and abuse of official capacity. Dukes is alleged to have collected pay for days she claimed to have worked but didn’t travel to the Capitol in 2014, during a break between legislative sessions. She’s also charged with giving a staffer a pay raise to cover gas money for driving Dukes’ daughter to school.
• Paid a $500 fine to resolve a lawsuit with the Texas Ethics Commission. Dukes was sued by the commission in July for missing a deadline for a campaign finance report and then not paying the fine.
• Waived her right to a speedy trial in any future litigation related to these matters.
Two of her three lawyers, Houston’s Dane Ball and Shaun Clarke, have filed a motion to withdraw from the case, saying they have been unable to effectively communicate with Dukes on matters essential to her representation.
The main difference between the new deal and the one Dukes turned down in January is the drug assessment. Moore told the Statesman on Monday she had Dukes’ young daughter in mind when she added the condition to the offer, adding, “If she has a drug problem, it needs to be addressed.”
A portion of a statement Dukes posted to Facebook directly addressed what Moore said. “While I appreciate any benevolent concern about my health, there is little need to speculate,” Dukes said. “My daughter, Leila is my heart, total and complete priority and gives me unconditional love, kisses and strength to fight every bullied battle.”
What we reported
The American-Statesman was first to report the terms of the settlement offer state Rep. Dawnna Dukes received from the Travis County district attorney. As the Texas Rangers opened their investigation into Dukes last year, the Statesman reviewed 15 years’ worth of her campaign expenditures, including $30,000 on gas, $13,000 on family members and $2,700 to a seamstress, raising numerous questions about the legislator’s spending habits and the accuracy of her financial reporting.