Dawnna Dukes’ activities outside Legislature raise questions

3:00 p.m Friday, Aug. 5, 2016 Texas News & Politics

On April 28, 2015, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes wrote a Facebook post explaining to her constituents that she had missed much of the legislative session that year due to lingering effects of a car crash nearly two years earlier.

“Departing the Capitol at 5:45 a.m. on April 1st, I became painfully aware of the danger in which I was placing myself having not the energy for such strenuous hours while on pain management,” the Austin Democrat wrote.

On April 5, Dukes posted from a concert: “Stevie Wonder still jamming as aka ‘DJ Tit Tit Boom’ at 12:15am when we left. Incredible talent at an incredible concert of a lifetime.”

Dukes missed 84 percent of House votes in the 2015 legislative session and was absent from 88 percent of her committee meetings, according to an American-Statesman review. Taxpayers nonetheless paid Dukes $29,000 during the five-month session because lawmakers do not need to show up to work to get paid during a legislative session.

Dukes, a 22-year veteran of the House, spent a significant amount of time during the last legislative session seeking medical treatment and pain management, as documented in her social-media posts, and she underwent a major surgery two months after the session ended. But while her ailments kept her away from the Capitol, they did not appear to hinder her participation in a handful of other activities, like social outings and a trip to East Texas, the Statesman found by reviewing her social-media posts, campaign records and calendar.

Dukes’ work absences juxtaposed with her activities outside the Capitol raise questions about the underlying reasons for missing much of the 2015 session. Through a spokesman, she declined an interview request for this story.

Dukes is facing a criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers and Travis County district attorney’s office that began over questions about her handling of the African-American Community Heritage Festival, one of the activities that Dukes did find time for during the session. Dukes co-founded the 17-year-old East Austin nonprofit event, which raised money for Huston-Tillotson University, but discontinued it this year because of the negative attention brought on by the investigation.

Investigators are examining her use of legislative staff for nongovernmental purposes, like raising money for the festival and doing personal errands for Dukes.

The Statesman has previously reported that Dukes awarded a staffer a raise to reimburse the employee for gas money spent driving Dukes’ daughter to school — and that another staffer had accused her of improperly seeking state payments in 2014 for days she claimed to work but did not go to the state Capitol. Lawmakers must work in their legislative offices to be paid when the Legislature is not in session.

During the 2015 session, Dukes’ out-of-office activities included:

• On March 28, after missing 48 votes the previous day, Dukes traveled to East Texas to attend a scholarship banquet at Jarvis Christian College, about 300 miles away from her district. The event featured a performance by rhythm and blues singer Howard Hewett, who Dukes has hired three times using her campaign funds, twice at the African-American Community Heritage Festival and once for a fundraiser. She expensed her travel costs for the East Texas trip to her campaign.

• On Feb. 28, Dukes attended the African-American Community Heritage Festival and posed for pictures with Hewett. The next day, she attended a Links event for professional African-American women, where she received an award. In the weeks before and after those events, Dukes missed eight of nine committee meetings.

• Throughout the legislative session, Dukes charged her campaign account for gas money and wrote off the expenses as “pertaining to legislative duties,” even on days when she missed votes at the Capitol.

One of the few days Dukes showed up to the House in the second half of the legislative session was April 16, the day singer John Legend appeared to promote a prison-reform campaign. She took photos with Legend but missed a meeting that day of the Select Committee on Emerging Trends in Texas Law Enforcement, of which she is vice chairwoman.

The Texas Constitution allows House members, regardless of Capitol attendance, to collect their pay — a $600 per month salary, as well as a per diem payment, which was $190 per day in 2015 during the legislative session. According to the Texas Ethics Commission website, “legislators are entitled to a per diem for each day of session, regardless of how many days were actually attended. Similarly, legislators are not required to provide evidence of actual expenditures to receive this per diem.”

Determining how often Texas lawmakers miss work is difficult by design. Through a resolution adopted at the beginning of each legislative session, the House Administration Committee bans state employees from compiling representatives’ voting records, said Jennifer Doran, the House journal clerk. The Statesman determined Dukes’ 2015 attendance by reviewing every roll-call vote the House took in 2015 and the minutes for all three committees she sits on.

In all, Dukes missed more than 1,400 of the approximately 1,700 House votes in 2015 and 44 of 50 committee meetings.

Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, a liberal-leaning Austin-based ethics watchdog group, said Dukes didn’t meet her responsibilities when she routinely missed votes.

“The main job of an elected representative is to cast votes on behalf of his or her constituents,” he said. “At the risk of stating the obvious, that’s what they are elected to do.”

Dukes was unopposed in the March 1 Democratic primary and faces Republican Gabriel Nila in the November general election.

State Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, who chairs the House Administration Committee, said the rule banning state employees from compiling lawmakers’ voting records was in place before he took over the committee, and he sees no reason to change it.

“All of those records are available to the public. Why make a state employee do it when you can do it if you want it that bad?” Geren said. “My employees have better things to do.”

Compiling those records, however, requires going through thousands of pages of roll-call votes and committee minutes, an arduous process for anyone but journalists or investigators.

A true picture of lawmaker attendance is muddied, however, by a practice known as ghost voting, in which members cast votes for their absent colleagues. The practice used to be banned, but after media reports in the mid-2000s showed that the practice was rampant, the House legalized it rather than enforce its own rules. Now members can give their colleagues permission to vote for them. There’s no log of those agreements, so it’s impossible to know whether such voting is inappropriate unless the absent member cries foul.

It’s not clear whether other members were casting votes for Dukes.

Geren declined to comment on Dukes collecting pay when she wasn’t coming to work but said that he has previously instructed the House Business Office not to pay him when he could not make it to the Capitol for a special session.

“There was a time when I knew I was going to be gone, and I left and I wrote them a letter and said, ‘Don’t pay me for these days,’” Geren said. “It’s up to each individual member.”

An 11-term incumbent for the minority party, Dukes earned those positions through seniority and influence. She landed a spot on Appropriations, for instance, by being one of the few Democrats who helped then-Speaker Tom Craddick, a Midland Republican, survive a series of attempts to unseat him in the mid-2000s.

But Dukes missed all but six meetings of those committees in 2015, including every one after Feb. 27.

Although she apparently rarely drove to the Capitol, which is 16 miles away from her house in Pflugerville, Dukes charged her campaign about $400 during the session for “gasoline pertaining to legislative duties.”

She made nine gas purchases over the five-month span, meaning she filled up a little less than twice per month.

Dukes sometimes bought gas on days when she missed meetings at the Capitol. On May 18, for instance, Dukes missed all 31 roll-call votes, as well as a meeting of the law enforcement committee she sits on, but she bought $48.87 worth of gas from H-E-B and expensed it as “legislative duties.”

On May 27, she missed 48 of 50 votes but bought $53.42 worth of gas from a Shell station, again for “legislative duties,” and also spent $352.72 on food and supplies for an “end-of-session party.” The Statesman has previously reported that a lobbyist catered the party, which was at Dukes’ home, raising questions about why Dukes also charged her campaign for food.

In August 2013, Dukes was rear-ended while driving on Interstate 35. The long-term effects of injuries suffered in that incident have stayed with her ever since, according to her media statements and online posts.

Dukes said her condition worsened in early 2015.

“I have consistently placed the honor of representing District 46 above my personal happiness and well-being. A little over a month ago, my injuries began to seriously deteriorate to a level inconveniencing my ability to be fully mobile or functional without excessive amounts of medication and pain management,” Dukes wrote in the April 2015 Facebook post.

She also said in the post that she could not reveal details about her injuries because of a lawsuit she filed against the other driver involved in the wreck. On March 3, 2015, 19 months after the crash, Dukes sued the other driver in a Hays County court, seeking between $200,000 and $1 million for medical expenses, lost earnings, mental anguish and other damages. The case is pending.

“It should be noted that due to pending litigation for my car accident, I must be cautious about fully disclosing in details my injuries — but let’s just say that neither twister, hop-scotch nor my normal vitality/agility are maneuvers of present which I can fathom attempting at this time,” Dukes wrote in April 2015.

In the second half of the session, Dukes made it to the House chamber for votes on the budget and to help Democrats block a key procedural maneuver orchestrated by the GOP.

On July 16, 2015, Dukes had an “anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, a surgical procedure used to treat spinal cord compression,” according to a news release from her office.

Dukes “tirelessly sought an alternative to the surgery, but exhausted every nonsurgical option with no lasting relief. The surgical procedure was scheduled during a time period that would have the least amount of impact on her legislative duties,” the release said. “She expects a full and complete recovery prior to the next legislative session.”

On May 21, Dukes posted on Facebook that she had finally found some relief from her pain issues.

“I’m grateful for awaking without a single pain in the injured neck and spine that has plagued me from an auto accident in 2013,” she wrote. “This is unbelievable that after so long for at least this morning, I do not feel the severe pain.”

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