The Travis County district attorney’s office has opened a criminal investigation into state Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ use of legislative staff for nongovernmental purposes, the American-Statesman has learned.
Dukes, an Austin Democrat, has been criticized for directing state employees to raise money for an East Austin nonprofit event, the African-American Community Heritage Festival, and for having staff members do personal errands and chores for her.
The Texas Tribune in February first reported that the state auditor’s office was investigating those arrangements after former staffers of her legislative office filed complaints.
The auditor’s office recently contacted prosecutors with Travis County’s Public Integrity Unit, which has opened a criminal probe on the matter, according to two sources familiar with the investigation who spoke with the Statesman on the condition of anonymity. Prosecutors are expected to issue subpoenas to current or former Dukes staffers soon, the sources said.
The sources asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the investigation.
Dukes told the Statesman she was unaware of the criminal investigation and insisted that she never violated state law.
“There is nothing in the statute that prohibits a legislator or an elected official from doing any work that benefits their constituency or organizations … that serve their constituencies,” Dukes said of the 17-year-old Heritage Festival, which raises scholarship money for Huston-Tillotson University students. She helped found the event, and it is organized primarily by a former staffer of hers who works as a consultant for the nonprofit that runs it.
Questions over her use of staff time for personal errands centered on an unusual arrangement in which a Dukes staffer lived at her house.
“The woman who made the allegations lived with me for three months rent-free, not having even to pay utilities. That was, in essence, a contractual agreement, and the agreement was that she would help with the kid for no rent and not having to buy groceries,” said Dukes, with “the kid” referring to her daughter.
All of the accusations, Dukes said, were made by disgruntled former employees with “an ax to grind.”
Dukes is serving her 11th term in the Texas House, and she represents parts of East Austin, North Austin, Northeast Austin, Manor and Pflugerville. She was absent for much of the last legislative session because she was recovering from injuries sustained in a car wreck, she has said.