- By Andrea Ball American-Statesman Staff
Thirteen thousand dollars in payments to family members. Seventeen thousand dollars for musical performers. Eleven thousand dollars to redecorate a Capitol office.
Over the last 15 years, state Rep. Dawnna Dukes has filed tens of thousands of dollars in unusual expenses in campaign finance reports, an American-Statesman review has found. Some — like $2,700 to a seamstress — seemingly conflict with state ethics rules. Others — like more than $30,000 in gas reimbursements, which is eight times more than all of her fellow Austin legislators combined — raise questions.
Earlier this year, the Texas Rangers, Travis County district attorney’s office and State Auditor’s Office launched a criminal investigation into how the longtime Democratic legislator has handled personnel and spending in her legislative office. Former employees have alleged that Dukes used state money to pay a now-former legislative staffer to run personal errands for the lawmaker. Law enforcement authorities are also looking into whether Dukes assigned her staffers to work on a cultural festival on state time and whether she broke any laws when she accepted state money for working but wasn’t actually at the Capitol.
Law enforcement officials have said they are focusing on how Dukes used state money, but a Statesman investigation has found that the legislator also has a history of questionable spending from her campaign account.
Texas politicians have wide latitude over how they spend campaign money thanks to broad interpretations of what constitutes candidate or officeholder purposes, the only approved uses for spending political contributions. State lawmakers often charge their campaigns for housing costs when they’re living in Austin during the legislative session and for steak dinners, among other expenses.
Texas Ethics Commission officials say that, generally, questionable expenses must be examined on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a candidate or officeholder has broken state rules. Because of that, it’s unclear whether Dukes’ expenditures crossed that line.
But Dukes’ spending nonetheless stands out for her penchant for paying family members, for the amount she spent on gas and for her vague use of the term consultant in the finance reports, which makes it difficult to tell what the money paid for.
The Statesman found between 2001 and 2015, Dukes’ campaign spending included:
“It’s hard, without additional information or subpoenas, to say any of this is, on its face, illegal,” said Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, a liberal-leaning Austin-based ethics watchdog group. “But taken together, it seems to show a pattern of a politician who treats her campaign funds as if, or almost as if, it were her own personal funds.”
Dukes spokesman Bill Miller said she is “not commenting on press stories of any kind until the Rangers report is complete.”
Political consultant Colin Strother, who worked with Dukes in 2008, said accusations of wrongdoing don’t jibe with the legislator he knows. Dukes was always hardworking, careful with campaign money, fastidious about following the rules and diligent about filling out her reports accurately, he added.
“I never saw anything weird or anything to give me pause,” Strother said. “I’ve always known her to be by the book and expected everyone to be by the book.”
Dukes, the daughter of businessman Ben Dukes Sr., first took office in 1994 as the representative of House District 46, which includes parts of East Austin, Pflugerville and Manor. Over the last 22 years, she has carved out a political career marked by highs, like serving on the powerful Appropriations Committee, and lows, like repeated ethics inquiries.
The 52-year-old legislator gained power in the House and drew the ire of her fellow Democrats when she helped House Speaker Tom Craddick, a West Texas Republican, hold onto the gavel during a series of coup attempts in the mid-2000s. She was rewarded with the spot on Appropriations, the House’s budget-writing committee.
Dukes’ vehicle was rear-ended while she was driving on Interstate 35 in August 2013, and she suffered injuries that she says continue to hinder her ability to work.
Dukes has been fined several times by the Texas Ethics Commission for problems with her campaign finance reports, including missing details on credit card expenditures and failing to file documents on time.
The latest scrutiny into her activities began about six months ago when the State Auditor’s Office started looking into questions raised by Michael French, a former Dukes legislative staffer, about whether it was appropriate for her to direct state employees to organize and raise money on state time for the African American Community Heritage Festival, an East Austin nonprofit event that raises money for Huston-Tillotson University.
The Texas Rangers and Travis County district attorney’s office later joined the investigation and are also looking into allegations that Dukes gave a raise to a state employee to cover gas money for doing such personal errands as driving Dukes’ daughter and into the validity of per diem requests Dukes submitted to get paid for work she said she performed when the Legislature wasn’t in session in 2014.
The Statesman reviewed hundreds of pages of Dukes’ campaign finance reports filed since 2001. (Records prior to 2001 are not readily available.) Thousands of dollars went to telephone bills, email services, advertising, staff salary supplements and other expenditures typical of many lawmakers. Some other expenses, and the circumstances around them, raise questions.
State law prohibits politicians from paying their family members with campaign money, but the ban only covers spouses and dependent children. Dukes has paid siblings and a nephew.
Over the last 15 years, Dukes has paid her sister, Paula Green, almost $8,000. Of those 18 payments, four were categorized as catering. The remainder were listed as consulting and provided no additional details.
The expenditures continued over the years until early 2014, when Dukes accused Green of stealing and pawning $11,000 of Dukes’ personal property. That case was later dismissed.
Dukes paid her nephew Aundre Dukes almost $5,000 in three payments for “consulting/packing” and “consulting, coordinate with Goodwill,” according to a finance report. Dukes’ sister-in-law Ateja Dukes, who is the campaign treasurer, received a small payment of $144 for “contract labor.”
Ateja Dukes, who used to be a neighborhood liaison for the city of Austin, didn’t respond to calls to her number listed on Dukes’ campaign finance reports. Green couldn’t be reached for comment, and her lawyer in the theft case declined to comment. Aundre Dukes, who has worked for state agencies and is now in private real estate development, didn’t respond to an interview request.
Dukes also used consulting to describe six payments to retired seamstress Sarah Esquivel, totaling $2,700. Esquivel told the Statesman that she didn’t recognize Dukes’ name but that the lawmaker might have been a client at the store where Esquivel used to work. She said she has never done political work of any kind.
Campaign accounts cannot be used for buying clothes and related services, even when the clothing is worn during state business, according to a 1992 Texas Ethics Commission advisory opinion. The commission has “generally provided a standard that expenditures for clothing expenses cannot be made from political contributions,” said Ian Steusloff, Texas Ethics Commission general counsel.
Over the past 15 years, Dukes, who lives 16 miles from the Capitol, has paid herself more than $30,000 in campaign money for gas. She made 351 purchases at the pump during that time, meaning she charged her campaign for gas at an average rate of once every two weeks.
Dukes’ six Travis County colleagues in the Legislature spent a combined $3,700 during the same period. Politicians are only permitted to charge their campaigns for gas when they are driving for political or legislative duties.
State Rep. Elliott Naishtat didn’t charge his campaign for gas once between 2001 and 2015.
“I have never really thought about it,” Naishtat, D-Austin, said. “I just decided when I got elected it wouldn’t be worth the hassle of trying to keep records.”
Dukes has also used her campaign to help pay at least $17,600 in expenses related to the African American Community Heritage Festival.
Although the event was supported by corporate donors, financed through an account with an established nonprofit (most recently the Austin Area Urban League) and organized in large part by her legislative staffers, Dukes has been using campaign money to cover expenses big and small for the festival since as early as 2001.
In 2009, the campaign paid $303 to an electronics store for “replacement of digital camera broken by staff at African American Heritage Festival.” In 2013, $146 went to Mardi Gras beads for the festival. And in 2014 and 2015, at least $7,185 in campaign money went to expenses related to musical performers, singer Howard Hewett and his son Chris Hayzel, including a $767 stay at the JW Marriott Austin, $400 for a chauffeur and a $352 tab at Fleming’s Steakhouse for “contract rider pre-event meals.”
Hewett, who was in the band Shalamar, also performed at a Dukes campaign fundraiser in September 2014, when she put him up in the W Austin hotel, bringing the total amount he and his son have received from the Dukes campaign to about $17,000.
The Ethics Commission is generally permissive of campaign contributions to nonprofits because of a statute allowing politicians who are closing their campaign accounts to donate excess money to charitable organizations. It’s unclear whether covering expenses for events put on by nonprofits would fall in the same category.
Dukes recently said she is discontinuing the event because of negative attention related to the criminal investigation. Gabriel Nila, Dukes’ Republican opponent in the November election, has vowed to keep the event going.
Some expenditures listed in Dukes’ campaign reports appear to have been paid by others, raising questions about where the money went.
In 2015, a legislative intern for Dukes was injured while working on the African American Community Heritage Festival and received treatment at a MedSpring urgent-care clinic. A subsequent campaign finance filing lists a $50 payment to the clinic from the Dukes campaign for “Reimbursement for intern: clinic copay fee to clinic for injury at Community Heritage Festival.”
But a former staffer, who asked that her name not be used for fear of retribution, said that she took the intern to the clinic, paid for the copay and was never reimbursed by Dukes or the campaign. The former employee provided the Statesman with a receipt showing that she paid MedSpring $50.
The injured intern confirmed to the Statesman that the staffer paid the medical bill, adding that Dukes wasn’t involved in the intern’s medical care after the incident and didn’t speak to her about her insurance copay.
Separately, Dukes was reimbursed $511 for supplies for festivities she said she hosted at the end of the 2015 legislative session for staffers and constituents. She also reported spending $180 on a consultant for an end-of-session party.
Because of the wording in the campaign finances report, it’s unclear whether one or two parties were held. But three former staffers — all of whom asked that their names not be used for fear of retribution by Dukes — say the legislator only held one small party for her staff at her Pflugerville home. The celebration included about eight people, including Dukes, her daughter and a lobbyist from Time Warner Cable who brought drinks and bought food from New Awlins Cafe, they added. A Time Warner Cable spokesman confirmed the lobbyist catered the party.
Three former employees who were at the gathering said that Dukes didn’t provide any additional food or beverages at the gathering.