In announcing last month plans to retire when her term expires in January, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes said that she is stepping down because of lingering health issues from a car crash that happened three years ago, not because she is facing a criminal investigation.
New records filed by her campaign, however, show that the investigation into alleged misuse of state resources likely was very much on her mind the week before the veteran Austin Democrat made her Sept. 26 retirement announcement.
The Texas Rangers delivered a criminal investigation on Dukes to the Travis County district attorney’s office the week prior to her announcement. On Sept. 19, the Dukes campaign paid $444.20 for “Airline travel for legal counsel on American Airlines,” and on Sept. 23, it spent another $74.65 on “ground transportation services for legal services,” the records show.
Dukes announced her retirement three days later.
The campaign also listed a $15,000 “unpaid incurred obligation” on Sept. 5 to the law firm of Fort Worth attorney Michael P. Heiskell. Heiskell told the American-Statesman he is representing Dukes but declined to say whether he was flown to Austin the week before the retirement announcement, citing attorney-client privilege.
“We are doing our darnedest to make sure that she’s not indicted on this matter,” Heiskell said. “I think there’s a number of hurdles that have to be overcome in order to charge her with these matters.”
The developments in Dukes’ case come as voters in her heavily Democratic district, which includes parts of Manor, Pflugerville and East Austin, prepare to decide whether to re-elect her or choose Republican Gabriel Nila, Libertarian Kevin Ludlow or Green Party candidate Michael Greeley. Because it is too late to replace Dukes on the ballot, a $200,000 special election would be needed to fill her seat if she wins.
Voters might not know whether Dukes will face charges by the time they cast their ballots for the Nov. 8 election. Gregg Cox, who leads the district attorney office’s Public Integrity Unit, said last week that there will be no public statements on the case for three weeks or more.
Grand jury on hold?
The probe into Dukes began in early 2016 when members of her legislative staff raised questions about her directing them to do nongovernmental work, including running personal errands for her and organizing a nonprofit event she co-founded.
Travis County prosecutors were prepared to ask a grand jury to indict Dukes in connection with her alleged mishandling of legislative staff and campaign money before she made the retirement announcement, according to a courthouse source with knowledge of the investigation but without authorization to discuss it publicly. Heiskell then initiated negotiations with Travis County prosecutors, who held off on convening a grand jury.
District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg has said that Dukes’ retirement announcement will affect how prosecutors handle the case but won’t be “determinative.”
Heiskell declined to discuss the specifics of the case but said he appreciates that the prosecutors have laid out the details for him. “The district attorney’s office there in Travis County, they’ve been very forthright with me and transparent,” he said.
Heiskell said he believes prosecutors would have difficulty proving criminal intent for Dukes’ actions.
That was the reason Travis County prosecutors gave when they recently declined to prosecute Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller after he was accused of using state and campaign money for two out-of-state trips that were primarily for personal purposes.
In a letter to the Texas Rangers, which also conducted the Miller investigation, Assistant District Attorney Susan Oswalt wrote, “After reviewing your investigation, our office has determined that criminal intent would be difficult to prove in this case.”
In Miller’s case, no documentation surfaced that indicated Miller’s intent for the trips.
But Dukes provided investigators a clue of her intent regarding one aspect of her alleged misuse of state resources in a text message exchange obtained by the Statesman.
On Sept. 1, 2015, Dukes approved a $268 per month raise to a legislative staffer who was living with her rent-free in exchange for helping Dukes with child care duties. The raise, Dukes wrote in a text message to the staffer, was to cover gas expenses when the staffer was driving Dukes’ daughter to and from school.
“Recall, I signed (the raise) with understanding that I was increasing your salary to compensate for gas. It is not as though (dropping off the daughter) makes you late to work and jeopardizes your job. What is going on? I truly do not function well with changes to expectations. Talk to me,” Dukes wrote to the staffer.
The staffer said she has turned over the text message exchange to investigators.
Dawnna Dukes investigation
January: Legislative staffers for Dukes raise questions about whether it is appropriate for her to require them to run personal errands and work on a nonprofit event she co-founded during business hours. The State Auditor’s Office opens an investigation.
April: The Travis County district attorney’s office opens a criminal investigation into Dukes after the State Auditor’s Office forwarded its probe. The Texas Department of Public Safety confirms that the Texas Rangers are participating in the investigation.
June 17: The American-Statesman publishes an investigation into Dukes’ use of campaign funds for questionable expenses, including payments to family members and massive amounts spent on gas.
Aug. 5: The Statesman looks into Dukes’ record during the 2015 legislative session, when she missed almost all of the activity at the Capitol but found time for nonlegislative activities and social outings. Dukes said she was unable to go to work because of a 2013 car crash.
Sept. 26: The week after the Texas Rangers deliver their report on Dukes to the district attorney’s office, Dukes, citing health concerns, announces she will retire at the end of her current term in January, even if she wins re-election.