Ex-aide: Rep. Dawnna Dukes billed state for days she wasn’t at Capitol

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes in 2014 billed the state for working on days she didn’t go to her Capitol office, as required by Texas House rules, and for other days she appeared to do no legislative work at all, according to a former aide who handled Dukes’ calendar at the time.

KiYa Moghaddam, who resigned from Dukes’ office in October 2015, said she confronted the Austin Democrat over the issue in August 2014.

“I told her that she had to actually be at the Capitol,” Moghaddam said in an interview with the American-Statesman. “I was thinking about the fact that I’m a taxpayer, and I don’t necessarily want my tax payments going to someone who’s not working for the interest of the constituency she represents.”

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Dukes received $4,674 in per diem travel payments after claiming 76 days worked in the first nine months of 2014, according to records obtained by the Statesman through the Texas Public Information Act. Her last request for payment that year, for Sept. 26, came about a month after the date Moghaddam said she discussed the matter with Dukes.

The travel voucher requests signed by Dukes included statements saying she had “traveled by personal car to Capitol to attend to legislative duties.”

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Buck Wood, a lawyer and expert on Texas ethics laws, said Dukes could face criminal charges if investigators determine she didn’t travel to the Capitol as claimed in the documents.

“If she did indeed sign and turn in a document that was false and received some money, that is falsifying a government record,” Wood said, adding that the amount of money involved determines whether any charges might be felonies or misdemeanors.

Earlier this year, Moghaddam said, she shared her concerns with investigators from the State Auditor’s Office, which has been investigating Dukes and has brought the Texas Rangers and the Travis County district attorney’s office into the probe after finding evidence of possible criminal wrongdoing.

The investigation began when two other former aides raised questions about Dukes using her staff for nongovernmental purposes by directing them to work on an East Austin nonprofit event she co-founded and by having one of them live with her and do personal errands.

The investigation has since widened to include questionable uses of governmental funds, including the per diem issue and an allegation that Dukes gave the live-in employee a $268 per month raise to cover the cost of driving Dukes’ daughter to and from school.

Dukes responded to an interview request from the Statesman with a text message: “Per diem request must be submitted. Plain and simple, I did not submit request forms for per diem during the time period. Any assumption that I did not make a request is or was associated with any reason other than I chose to not do so is falsely and patently INCORRECT.”

Asked to clarify the text message and to respond to Moghaddam’s comments, Dukes sent another text: “I will not dignify wild exaggerated allegations. I find this behavior bizarre and immature.”

Texas’ part-time Legislature meets for about five months every two years. During the session, state representatives get paid every business day, even if they don’t show up at the Capitol or request compensation.

In the interim, House members can get paid for up to 12 days per month, but they must request the payment and certify that they worked on certain days. In 2014, lawmakers who lived within 50 miles of the Capitol, including Dukes, received $61.50 for each day worked in the interim.

Dukes missed almost all of the 2015 legislative session and has said her absences were due to injuries she suffered in an August 2013 car crash.

It’s clear that Dukes went to the Capitol on at least two of the 76 days she claimed in 2014. Minutes from two House Appropriations Committee hearings in June 2014 show that she was present.

Dukes’ calendar, a redacted copy of which was obtained through a records request to her office, showed numerous events she was scheduled to attend in 2013 and 2015. But only one event was listed for all of 2014: a graduation speech on Jan. 24.

The Statesman also requested that the Department of Public Safety provide records on when Dukes entered or exited the Capitol and that the Texas Legislative Council, which handles information technology for lawmakers, provide records on when she logged into her state-issued computer. Both agencies have asked the Texas attorney general’s office to allow them to withhold the records from the Statesman.

Moghaddam said she raised the issue with Dukes after she learned from House officials that lawmakers must be present at the Capitol to collect per diem travel payments. Moghaddam said that Dukes told her that wasn’t the case and briefly continued to submit per diem vouchers for days that Moghaddam knew she wasn’t at the Capitol.

“She told me that it had always been that any legislative work that she did, whether it was from her home or in the district, counted toward per diem,” Moghaddam said. “There were days that she sent me claiming that she had made phone calls or had received phone calls that were not on her schedule.”

Soon after, Dukes stopped requesting per diem payments altogether.

The House Administration Committee sets the rules for per diem use in its Manual of Policies & Procedures, which says representatives can receive up to 12 days of per diem travel payments per month if they travel from their district to Austin “to attend to legislative duties in their office.” There is no provision allowing lawmakers to receive pay for legislative work done in their districts.

Dukes, in her 11th two-year term, represents much of North Austin, East Austin, Pflugerville and Manor.

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