Text message says staffer’s raise covered errands for Rep. Dawnna Dukes

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes last year gave a $268 per month raise to a legislative aide to pay for gas so the employee could drive Dukes’ daughter to and from school and do other personal errands, according to an interview with the employee and a text message from Dukes viewed by the American-Statesman.

The raise was part of an unusual arrangement in which the staffer was living rent-free at Dukes’ Pflugerville home in exchange for personal chores, and it is part of a criminal investigation of Dukes, D-Austin, being conducted by the Texas Rangers and the Travis County district attorney’s office.

Texas law doesn’t allow state money to be used for personal expenses.

The employee received the $268 per month raise on Sept. 1, 2015, according to a Personnel Action Request, or PAR, obtained through the Texas Public Information Act.

On Sept. 18, Dukes made clear in a text message conversation why the raise was granted. In the exchange, the employee tells Dukes that she dropped Dukes’ daughter off at school that day even though it wasn’t her scheduled day to do so because other people who looked after the girl didn’t show up.

Dukes responded: “Recall, I signed a PAR with understanding that I was increasing your salary to compensate for gas. It is not as though (dropping off the daughter) makes you late to work and jeopardizes your job. What is going on? I truly do not function well with changes to expectations. Talk to me.”

The Texas Tribune in February first reported on the living arrangement and an investigation by the State Auditor’s Office that was sparked by complaints from multiple staffers about Dukes’ use of her employees.

The revelation that Dukes awarded a raise for personal expenses could help explain why the investigation has recently grown from an auditor’s probe into a criminal investigation.

The episode raises questions about whether Dukes violated state laws on using government resources for personal use and falsifying government records by signing off on the raise, said Buck Wood, a lawyer and expert on Texas ethics laws.

“The state can’t finance a state official’s transportation for their children. Getting your kids to school and home is stuff that you have to do,” Wood said.

The Personnel Action Request, which is signed by Dukes, is for a “salary change” but doesn’t specify a reason for the raise. Wood, however, said that signing off on an inappropriate raise could constitute falsifying government records even if the reason for the pay increase was left blank. “It does reinforce the idea that she really couldn’t put the real purpose in there,” he said.

Dukes said she will answer questions when the investigation is complete. “She is cooperating fully with the Ranger investigation and has every confidence it is being conducted fairly and objectively,” said Bill Miller, a lobbyist who is acting as Dukes’ spokesman.

Dukes has said in the past that the living arrangement was legal because it was an out-of-office transaction in which the employee received free room and board and Dukes received free child care services and help with other domestic tasks.

The aide, who started working for Dukes as an intern, is a 22-year-old woman who was in the same sorority as Dukes at their alma mater, Texas A&M University. She agreed to speak with the Statesman if her name were not used.

“It was my first job out of college. Dawnna made it seem like that’s how all legislative staffers have it: They’re the nannies; they’re the chauffeurs. So I said OK,” the staffer said.

She said Dukes used personal funds to reimburse her for grocery runs and other expenses, but rarely did so for gas money. When the employee asked for gas money, Dukes responded by giving her the raise, the employee said.

The raise bumped her pay from $3,000 per month to $3,268. Dukes, the employee said, intended $250 to cover the gas and the other $18 to pay for taxes paid at the pump.

The staffer grew weary of what amounted to an around-the-clock job and told Dukes she would no longer take care of the representative’s daughter. The two had a falling out, and Dukes fired her after a disagreement in January, the employee said.

Dukes also is facing scrutiny for directing her staff to work full-time on the nonprofit African American Community Heritage Festival, an East Austin event co-founded by Dukes 17 years ago that raises scholarship money for Huston-Tillotson University.

She has said that using her staff to organize and raise money for the event is acceptable because it benefits her constituents.

Dukes, who is in her 11th two-year term, represents parts of North Austin, East Austin, Pflugerville and Manor. She was unopposed in the March 1 Democratic primary and faces Republican Gabriel Nila in the general election.

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