Embattled state Rep. Dawnna Dukes won’t step down as planned when the Legislature convenes for its new session Tuesday, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore told the American-Statesman on Saturday.
Moore, newly sworn into office, said that a lawyer representing the longtime Democratic lawmaker from Austin had called to inform Moore of Dukes’ decision.
Moore said she was already scheduled to meet Tuesday with Texas Rangers investigating Dukes for possible ethics violations and would proceed with that meeting and then decide whether to go before a grand jury and seek an indictment of Dukes.
“Rep. Dawnna Dukes has retained us to represent her in connection with the investigation being conducted by the Travis County district attorney’s office,” Houston attorneys Dane Ball and Shaun Clark said in a text message to the Statesman. “We have been in contact with the district attorney. Because this is an ongoing investigation we will have no further comment at this time.”
Dukes had announced in September that she wouldn’t be sworn in for a 12th term, citing medical complications stemming from a 2013 car crash as the reason for her departure. But her announcement came soon after the Texas Rangers completed an investigation into her use of legislative staff and campaign money.
It wasn’t clear Saturday whether Dukes’ health had improved or why she had reversed course. She has kept a low profile since news broke nearly a year ago of possible ethical missteps, and she hasn’t responded to repeated requests for comment from the Statesman over the past several months. She didn’t respond to a message Saturday.
The decision from the veteran legislator was an extraordinary turn in a long-running political saga, but she could be counting on her job as leverage to avoid prosecution.
Dukes had been attempting to strike a deal with prosecutors, the Statesman reported in October. Prosecutors had been prepared to ask a grand jury to indict Dukes before she announced that she would step down, a source with knowledge of the investigation told the Statesman.
Former District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said then that the retirement announcement would factor into how her office pursues the case.
But the matter apparently wasn’t resolved before Lehmberg left office.
Waiting in the wings
Dukes’ announcement that she would step down came after a deadline to replace her on the Nov. 8 ballot. She won with 70.3 percent of the vote in the predominantly Democratic House district, running from East Austin to Manor and Pflugerville.
Several Democrats have said they would run to replace her, including former Austin City Council Member Sheryl Cole. Jose “Chito” Vela III, another potential candidate, had called on Dukes to step down earlier than her planned departure this month.
Dukes responded on Facebook to his plea, calling it an “unpleasant campaign tactic.”
“Her constituents took Rep. Dukes at her word and the campaign to fill her seat has begun,” Vela said in a statement Saturday. “Now, there are reports that Rep. Dukes will not step down as she previously announced. This ambiguity hurts the people she represents, who are counting on their elected officials to fight (President-elect Donald) Trump and the radical Republican agenda.”
“I hope Rep. Dukes will do the right thing and step down on January 10,” Vela said. “Regardless, my campaign will continue.”
Republican Gabriel Nila and Libertarian Kevin Ludlow, who ran unsuccessfully against Dukes in November, have said they would also run in a special election.
Adam Reposa, an attorney and political provocateur, has also said he will run as an independent candidate.
The inquiry into Dukes began early last year 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.
In two investigations over the summer, the Statesman uncovered several questionable expenses on Dukes’ campaign spending reports and revealed that she was absent from the Legislature for much of the 2015 session, even as she apparently attended several social events. The Statesman also found that Dukes’ consulting company and her subcontractors made more than $1 million over four years working to boost the number of minority- and women-owned companies working for the Austin school district, but had little to show for their work.
Dukes’ decision to take the oath of office didn’t come on the advice of Fort Worth defense attorney Michael Heiskell, who had been representing her.
“That was not my advice to her,” said Heiskell, who said Dukes hadn’t consulted with him before reversing her decision to step down.
Is he still her attorney?
“Apparently not,” Heiskell said.
Heiskell said he had been contacted earlier in the week by Ball, who said he was looking into the matter at Dukes’ request.
Heiskell said it had been his hope that if Dukes had stepped down, the Travis County district attorney wouldn’t seek an indictment.
“But all that’s been scuttled now if what I am hearing is true,” Heiskell said.
WHAT WE REPORTED
The American-Statesman has reviewed 15 years’ worth of state Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ 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.
The Statesman also looked at Dukes’ activities during the 2015 legislative session, in which she missed 84 percent of House votes and 44 of 50 committee meetings. The Austin Democrat spent a significant amount of time during the session seeking medical treatment and managing pain, but she also participated in several social activities, such as a trip to East Texas and attending a Stevie Wonder concert, according to Dukes’ social media and campaign finance reports.
DAWNNA DUKES INVESTIGATION
January: Legislative staffers for Rep. Dawnna 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 investigation. 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 large 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.
Nov. 8: Dukes easily defeats Republican Gabriel Nila and two other candidates with 70.3 percent of the vote.