Travis County prosecutors dropped all of the remaining charges against longtime state Rep. Dawnna Dukes on Monday, bringing an end to a legal soap opera that could have put the lawmaker behind bars.
Instead, the saga concluded with a jubilant Dukes announcing on a Facebook post that she would seek reelection next year.
“I am looking forward to continuing to represent the 46th District,” she wrote. “After years of treatment and therapy for spinal injuries suffered in an auto accident, I am grateful to be in better health, and I’m very much looking forward to interim committee assignments and my reelection in March.”
The decision by Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore came just days after prosecutors acknowledged that a botched analysis by the Texas Department of Public Safety and conflicting statements from a key witness had left their case in tatters.
“Representative Dukes was innocent from day one,” said Dukes’ lawyer, Dane Ball. “She could have resigned to avoid these charges but had the courage to fight for the truth.”
Moore pinned the case’s collapse on conflicting statements given by Steve Adrian, a top official in the Texas House, who had told prosecutors that travel to the Capitol was required to earn the per-diem payments but later recanted in a statement to Dukes’ lawyers.
“Because the (House) did not enforce the House rule requiring travel to the Capitol, and because of the lack of House policies regarding the type of activities that would qualify as legislative business, we cannot demonstrate that Rep. Dukes received the payments because of her false statements,” Moore said.
In addition to dropping the 12 felony counts, prosecutors moved to dismiss the two misdemeanor charges after Dukes paid $1,840 in fines and restitution to the state and returned $5,200 to her campaign account, which she was accused of using for personal expenses. Prosecutors initially brought 15 counts against the 12-term lawmaker but had already abandoned one charge.
On Facebook, Dukes responded to the news by saying she was glad she had continued “to fight to prove my (innocence) from malicious rumors instead of accepting a plea for something baselessly and without merit for which I was charged.”
Meanwhile, Travis County Republicans quickly jumped on Moore after her office dropped the charges against Dukes, blaming her for the case’s implosion.
“Today’s news that District Attorney Moore is letting Rep. Dukes walk free without even going to trial after indictment for 15 very serious corruption charges is an embarrassment to Travis County and a monumental waste of taxpayer funds by two Democratic district attorneys,” county GOP Chairman Matt Mackowiak said.
The corruption charges against Dukes came on the heels of a series of American-Statesman stories that exposed questionable spending by her campaign, text messages that showed Dukes arranging to use state funds to pay a staffer to run errands, and that she maintained an active social calendar while missing almost the entire 2015 legislative session because of health problems.
It was second high-profile loss Monday for Moore’s office, which saw its murder case against Bryan Canchola collapse after a judge tossed out evidence offered by a key expert witness from the Travis County medical examiner’s office.
Dukes spent much of the past two years under the microscope of local and state authorities, who were investigating her activities at the Capitol.
The state auditor’s office opened an investigation into Dukes after complaints in January 2016 that she had ordered her staff to run personal errands and work for her nonprofit on state time. State officials forwarded their investigation to the Travis County district attorney’s office that April.
Dukes announced in September that she would resign if re-elected, but reversed field in January as rumors of a possible plea deal swirled around the courthouse.
Prosecutors returned fire, bringing 15 charges — 13 felonies and two misdemeanors — in January, alleging that she falsified government records to receive per-diem payments for days she never appeared at the Capitol and for using her legislative staff for her domestic needs.
They offered to drop the case in July if Dukes resigned from office and submitted to drug and alcohol tests.
“It would be indecorous of me to respond to impertinent allegations,” Dukes responded on Facebook at the time. “Although some would have you believe that silence is a weakness or admission of guilt, I submit to you that opinion is without merit.”
Earlier this month, prosecutors said they would be forced to drop one of the charges because a state crime analyst examined the wrong day on Dukes’ phone.
The charges against Dukes set her up for what is likely to be a bruising primary battle to represent the heavily Democratic District 46 in 2018 and led to a series of embarrassing disclosures in court papers.
In one filing, prosecutors alleged that she failed to turn over a cellphone, spent $51,000 on an online psychic and missed more than half of the 2017 session.
“I know I’m talking a lot,” Dukes told a room full of lawmakers on March 29, one of the days she appeared at the Capitol during the 2017 session. “I’m full of morphine.”