State Rep. Dawnna Dukes turned herself in at the Travis County courthouse on Wednesday afternoon after a grand jury on Tuesday indicted her on 13 felony corruption charges and two misdemeanors.
Speaking outside the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center before going in to stand for a mug shot and give her fingerprints, Dukes, D-Austin, said she would plead not guilty on all charges and will continue serving in the Texas House.
“I have been silent at the advice of my attorneys since February, and I am very relieved that my attorneys … are here today to begin the process of getting out the other side of the story,” she told reporters. “I will focus my time and my energy on the people of District 46 and their issues and concerns in the Texas House of Representatives.”
Dukes is charged with 13 felony counts of tampering with public records and two misdemeanor counts of abuse of official capacity. The charges carry a combined maximum penalty of 28 years behind bars and $138,000 in fines, although defendants rarely receive maximum sentences. Dukes is out on a $75,000 personal recognizance bond.
The indictments come a week after Dukes reneged on a plan to step down and took the oath of office for a 12th two-year term representing parts of North Austin, East Austin, Pflugerville and Manor.
The tampering with public records charges concern allegations that Dukes collected pay from the state in 2013 and 2014, while the Legislature wasn’t in session, for days that she didn’t travel to the Capitol. House rules require lawmakers to work at the Capitol to be paid. The American-Statesman in May reported that a former Dukes staffer had accused the legislator of filing requests for per diem payments for days that she never traveled to the Capitol and might not have worked at all.
One of the misdemeanor charges alleges Dukes used her legislative staff for personal purposes. The Statesman in April reported that Dukes had arranged to give a taxpayer-funded raise to an aide to cover gas money for driving Dukes’ daughter to and from school.
The other abuse of official capacity charge alleges Dukes deposited into her personal account two checks from the African American Community Heritage Festival, a nonprofit annual event she co-founded 18 years ago, that should have been deposited in her campaign account for expense reimbursement.
Politicians may use campaign money to pay for election activities or for expenses related to carrying out their elected office, but state law forbids them from using it for personal purposes.
Dukes has made numerous questionable expenditures from her campaign account over the years, including $13,000 in payments to family members, $30,000 on gas and $2,700 to a seamstress, a Statesman investigation in June found. Dukes has listed at least $17,600 in campaign expenditures for the community festival, including $303 to an electronics store for “replacement of digital camera broken by staff,” $146 for Mardi Gras beads and more than $7,000 for musical performers, the Statesman investigation found.
After negative media attention, Dukes ended the festival last year.
In early 2016, members of her legislative staff questioned whether it was appropriate for Dukes to have them work full-time on the festival and do personal errands for her. The state auditor’s office began investigating Dukes before handing the case off to Travis County prosecutors, who in turn asked the Texas Rangers to lead the inquiry.
In September, the week after the Rangers delivered their investigation to prosecutors, Dukes announced she would resign at the conclusion of her 11th term, saying the lingering effect of a 2013 car crash had made it impossible for her to do the job.
It was too late to remove Dukes’ name from the November ballot, and, despite promising not to serve, she won re-election with more than 70 percent of the vote in her heavily Democratic district. Candidates hoping to replace Dukes then began preparing for an expected special election.
Dukes, however, reversed course days before the Legislature reconvened, saying she wanted to continue serving because her health had improved and her constituents had implored her to stay in office.
Candidates lining up
Candidates had already lined up to replace her in a special election, and they haven’t dropped their plans.
Democrats Sheryl Cole, Nnamdi Orakwue, Jose “Chito” Vela III, Ana Cortez and Greg Harrington are keeping their campaigns alive, as are Republican Gabriel Nila, Libertarian Kevin Ludlow and independent Adam Reposa.
“While I regret that the alleged criminal actions by Rep. Dukes ever took place, I am more concerned of the impact this issue continues to have across House District 46 and Texas,” Cortez said.
Vela, an attorney and former legislative staffer, reiterated his call for Dukes to resign immediately.
“She should have resigned as soon as possible so we could have the election. She didn’t do that. She should have resigned when she said she was going to resign. She didn’t do that,” Vela said. “Now she is in an even worse situation, and I have very serious doubts about her ability to continue to effectively represent the people of the district.”
Harrington, who works in sales at Dell and said he has been a master of ceremonies for the African American Community Heritage Festival, said Dukes “has been fighting hard for our district” and should continue serving so that the district doesn’t go unrepresented for part of the legislative session, which runs through May 29.
“I’m actually supportive of her not stepping down because even if there was an election, that means House District 46 would have zero representation until session is out,” Harrington said.
WHAT WE REPORTED
Over the last year, the American-Statesman has reported in detail on the issues that led to state Rep. Dawnna Dukes being indicted Tuesday.
In May, the Statesman reported that a former staffer accused Dukes of collecting pay for time the lawmaker didn’t go to the Capitol, as required by House rules. The grand jury indicted Dukes on 13 felony charges for tampering with public records in connection to that allegation.
In April, the Statesman published a text message exchange showing that Dukes arranged a taxpayer-funded raise for a staffer to cover gas money for driving Dukes’ daughter to school, which is the basis for one of the misdemeanor charges of abuse of official capacity Dukes is facing.
The second misdemeanor charge concerns Dukes’ use of her campaign funds and her management of the African American Community Heritage Festival. The Statesman in June reported that Dukes has made numerous questionable expenditures from her campaign account over the years, including more than $17,000 to the festival.
DAWNNA DUKES INVESTIGATION
January 2016: 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.
Sept. 26: The week after the Rangers deliver their report on her to prosecutors, 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.
Jan. 10: Dukes reneges on her plan to step down and is sworn in for a 12th term in the Texas House.
Jan. 17: A grand jury indicts Dukes, charging her with 13 felony counts of tampering with public records and two misdemeanor counts of abuse of official capacity.
Jan. 18: Dukes turns herself in, saying she plans to plead not guilty and will continue serving in the Legislature.