Hours after state Rep. Dawnna Dukes was sworn in Tuesday for a 12th two-year term, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said that her office will move forward with the pending criminal case against the Austin Democrat and begin presenting evidence to a grand jury next week.
Among possible charges: abuse of official capacity and tampering with public records, Moore said. She declined to provide details on the evidence that will be presented. Dukes has been accused of misusing her legislative staff and campaign money.
Facing the criminal investigation, which was led by the Texas Rangers, and saying she was too ill to serve, Dukes said in September she would step down at the end of her 11th term. That would have created a vacancy to be filled by a special election during the 2017 session, and candidates had already lined up to replace Dukes.
Instead, she changed her mind days before the session began, sending shock waves through the Austin political community, upending the plans of those preparing to run for her seat and adding a new twist to the possible criminal case.
Dukes arrived several minutes late to the House chamber Tuesday, missing the opening prayers and pledges of allegiance but showing up in time to be sworn in with the rest of her House colleagues.
Moore, meanwhile, was receiving a briefing on Dukes’ case by the Rangers.
The case has been teed up for months, Moore said, but her predecessor as district attorney, Rosemary Lehmberg, delayed moving forward until Dukes stepped down.
“The thing had been delayed at (Dukes’) request,” said Moore, who took office last week. “It’s been ready for some time.”
Moore said Dukes’ retirement plans, or lack of them, has had “no effect” on her handling of the case.
Speaking to reporters after being sworn in, but before Moore’s announcement, Dukes said she decided to come back because she was re-elected in November with 70 percent of the vote despite not campaigning and because many constituents had urged her to continue serving.
“Constituents, former members, present members were really encouraging me to change my mind, and they were using every argument possible,” she said.
Additionally, Dukes said her health had improved substantially in recent weeks. Dukes has said she has been dealing with complications from a 2013 car crash that caused her to miss almost all of the last legislative session in 2015.
“Over the months and through December, my doctors really worked hard, getting me into appointments that weren’t even mine, to help me understand that there is life after a major injury,” she said.
Dukes declined to discuss the criminal investigation, saying, “Anything concerning legal is in the process, or not, and I don’t plan on discussing it.”
The case against Dukes began early last year when members of her legislative staff questioned Dukes’ requiring them do personal errands for her and work full-time on an annual nonprofit event she co-founded, the African American Community Heritage Festival in East Austin. Dukes has since canceled the event.
Since then, the American-Statesman has reported that Dukes arranged a raise for a state employee to cover gas money for driving Dukes’ daughter to school, that a former staffer has accused Dukes of collecting pay for time the lawmaker didn’t work and that Dukes’ campaign reports include numerous questionable expenditures. Also, a Statesman report last fall revealed the Austin school district has little to show for a $1 million contract with Dukes’ consulting firm.
Texas Republican Party Chairman Tom Mechler on Tuesday called on Dukes to resign immediately.
“Texans deserve to know why she wasted taxpayer money and used state employees for personal matters,” Mechler said in a statement. “Should Rep. Dukes believe that she’s above the law and refuse to resign, then Travis County DA Margaret Moore needs to move forward with an indictment immediately.”
Meanwhile, the candidates who had lined up to run for Dukes’ seat weren’t backing off their plans to campaign.
Former Austin City Council Member Sheryl Cole, a Democrat, said she will run for House District 46 at the next available opportunity, regardless of whether Dukes resigns and triggers a special election or runs for re-election in 2018.
“We’ve received overwhelming support in a short period of time. It’s a sign, that has been shared with me time and again, of the community’s strong desire for a fresh start,” Cole said Tuesday afternoon.
Cole had previously been deferential to Dukes’ plan to delay stepping down from her post once her term expired, rather than leaving office immediately. When other House District 46 hopefuls had called on Dukes to resign immediately, Cole declined to do so.
Cole’s campaign-in-waiting has raised $60,000 with an additional $29,000 pledged, according to a news release. She listed endorsements from U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, state Sen. Kirk Watson and other high-profile Austin-area Democrats.
Other would-be candidates for Dukes’ seat, which covers parts of North Austin, East Austin, Manor and Pflugerville, include Democrats Jose “Chito” Vela III and Nnamdi Orakwue, Republican Gabriel Nila, Libertarian Kevin Ludlow and independent Adam Reposa.