The Travis County district attorney will not pursue, at least for now, the most serious charges against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, saying prosecutors have renewed their investigation into the travel vouchers at the heart of the 13 felony counts the Austin Democrat is facing.
District Attorney Margaret Moore confirmed to the American-Statesman on Thursday that prosecutors have obtained new information relating to the vouchers, which Dukes is accused of falsifying for financial gain. But Moore declined to elaborate on what the new information is.
“The district attorney’s office recently received new, unexpected information pertinent to that case and the new information has created a need for further investigation by this office and the Texas Rangers,” Moore said.
The case had been set for trial in October. On Wednesday, Moore’s office informed Dukes’ defense lawyers and state District Judge Brad Urrutia of her decision.
Moore said prosecutors will move forward with the October trial date on two misdemeanor charges against Dukes relating to allegations of her using legislative staffers for personal gain.
“Dawnna is pleased that the state will no longer pursue the felony charges,” said Dane Bell, a Houston attorney representing Dukes. “We will continue to work vigorously to prove her innocence on the remaining misdemeanor charges.”
Dukes declined to comment, citing advice from her attorney.
A grand jury in January charged Dukes, a 12-term Texas House member, with two misdemeanor counts of abuse of official capacity as well as the 13 felonies, which stem from travel voucher forms in which Dukes collected pay from the state by claiming she traveled to the Capitol in 2013 and 2014 between legislative sessions.
A former Dukes staffer told the Statesman last year that the lawmaker did not travel to the Capitol for all of the days that she claimed but directed her staff to prepare the forms as if she did.
Dukes has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The misdemeanors each carry a maximum penalty of one year behind bars, while the felony counts each carried up to two years, meaning Dukes was facing a maximum possible sentence of 28 years. If she were to be convicted of the misdemeanors alone, she could avoid jail time altogether because maximum sentences are rarely imposed.
One of the misdemeanors alleges that Dukes used her legislative staff for personal purposes by giving a taxpayer-funded raise to an aide to cover gas money for driving Dukes’ daughter to and from school. The other alleges that Dukes profited from her campaign account by depositing 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 gone to her campaign account for expense reimbursement.
The 13 felony counts stem from monthly travel voucher forms Dukes signed in late 2013 and 2014. The forms stated that, on the dates in question, Dukes “traveled by personal car to the Capitol to attend to legislative duties.” She was paid $61.50 for each day she claimed on the forms.
The House Manual of Policies & Procedures states that lawmakers can collect the travel pay between legislative sessions for trips to Austin “to attend to legislative duties in their office.”
KiYa Moghaddam, a former Dukes staffer who prepared the voucher forms for Dukes during that time, told the Statesman last year that she questioned Dukes about misusing the forms.
“I told her that she had to actually be at the Capitol,” Moghaddam said last year. “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.”
The indictment says that Dukes did “knowingly make a false entry in a government record, and present and use said government record with knowledge of its falsity, by instructing her staff to add a false entry to her State of Texas Travel Voucher Form.”
Dukes was paid $799.50 for the 13 days included in the indictment. She was a frequent user of the voucher forms, collecting $4,674 from 76 days she claimed in the first nine months of 2014. She abruptly stopped collecting the travel pay at that time, which was when Moghaddam questioned her use of the vouchers.
The investigation into Dukes began in early 2016 when some of her staffers questioned her directing them to work full-time on the heritage festival, sparking a probe by the state auditor’s office that snowballed into a criminal investigation led by the Texas Rangers.
As the legal and political pressures on her mounted, Dukes in September 2016 announced that she would step down at the conclusion of her 11th term, when the 85th Legislature convened in January 2017. She cited health reasons, saying the effects of an August 2013 car crash that had made it impossible for her to serve, although her announcement came in the middle of talks with prosecutors.
Dukes then reneged on that promise in January and was sworn in to a 12th two-year term. A week later, Moore, who had recently taken office, announced that a grand jury had indicted the lawmaker, whose district includes parts of North Austin, East Austin, Pflugerville and Manor.
Candidates hoping to replace the beleaguered representative have been calling for her to step down.
Her trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 13.