Dawnna Dukes and the Dangers of Political Perks
When do the benefits of office become the excess of privilege?
Perhaps over time, over years of public service, it just becomes impossible for some politicians to see the line that divides the normal perks of office from becoming abuses of privilege. That kind of myopia has landed many Texas elected officials in legal trouble over the years, and the latest is state representative Dawnna Dukes of Austin.
On Wednesday, she was indicted on two misdemeanor charges of abuse of official capacity and thirteen felony counts of felony corruption—allegations that could put her in prison for up to 28 years. The charges stem from her alleged use of a state employee as a nanny. She has denied guilt and claimed the entire affair is nothing more than complaints from disgruntled former employees. Dukes took to her Facebook page for a brief defense after the indictments were returned by a Travis County grand jury:
I am disappointed but I expected that if I was sworn into office in January 10th that this indictment would follow. All I can say today is that I will be entering a plea of Not Guilty. On the advice of my attorneys, I have not spoken on any of the allegations since February 2016. As well, since this is now a case in court, on the advice of my attorneys, I will continue to have no further comment. My attorneys and I will respond in court at the appropriate time. Thank you to my constituents, loving family and dear friends for your warm regards, prayers and constant support.
As a young African-American woman, Dukes entered the legislature in 1995 with the promise of potential. Somehow, though, she never achieved the acclaim of her predecessor, Wilhelmina Delco, who retired from the after two decades of service with an almost saint-like reputation. The East Austin Democrat often has been praised for her courage to stand up on liberal issues important to minorities and women. In 2003, she fled with other Democratic House members to Oklahoma in an unsuccessful attempt to halt a Republican redistricting plan. However, she also received the scorn of many Democrats for supporting Republican Tom Craddick of Midland as the House speaker, a vote cast apparently to obtain a seat on the powerful budget-writing appropriations committee.
There always was something opportunistic about Dukes, as can be found in a collection of older stories housed in the newspaper archives databank Newsbank. Even before taking office, there was a scandal involving the Austin City Council. Several members with ties to Dukes and her father had voted to give companies owned by the family lucrative contracts connected to the city-run airport. In the late nineties, the FBI interviewed Dukes while looking into Houston airport contract irregularities involving a Houston councilman. Dukes defused her role in the controversy by claiming undercover FBI agents were trying to find out if she was corruptible but failed. During an ugly 2004 fight in Travis County over toll roads, opponents accused Dukes of casting a vote on a local mobility authority that would benefit her sister, Stacy Rhone, a civil engineer. In 2008, the Austin American-Statesman editorialized that Dukes’ district deserved better leadership. She had used her influence at City Hall on behalf of a film production developer who wanted exemptions from city rules on government permitting, pollution controls, annexation, and taxes. “No one who knows Dukes’ reputation will be surprised to learn” that she received campaign contributions from the developer’s CEO, the paper wrote. “The council is wise to ignore shakedowns.”
For twenty years, Dukes had lived in that shadow land between right and wrong, between good government and what a member of the New York Tammany Hall gang once called “honest graft”—the pursuit of public interests and personal interests at the same time. As Tammany’s George Washington Plunkitt declared, “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”
Dukes’s world started crashing down after a 2013 car accident on Interstate 35, where she was rear-ended. She blamed constant pain from the accident for missing 85 percent of the votes in the 2015 Legislature. Then state staff members claimed she was paying them with taxpayer money while actually using them as nannies for her daughter. She defended the practice to the Texas Tribune by saying she provided the staffers with rent-free living. “I had a staffer who lived with me rent-free, and in exchange for living rent-free, they were being a nanny of sorts to my daughter,” Dukes said. “They were very close friends with her.”
The Texas Rangers began investigating whether Dukes converted state money to personal use, and over the summer she promised that, if she were reelected, she’d resign her seat in the Legislature. But last week, she reneged and took her oath of office for another two-year term. Dukes said she will stay in office while fighting the charges against her. That leaves her the option of possibly offering resignation as a bargaining chip for a lesser sentence. The end result, however, will be that her constituents had no voice in the Legislature last session and may not have one in the current one. Even if she resigns now, Governor Greg Abbott can delay for a month calling a special election and then another month would pass before it would occur. Half the session would be gone before Dukes’ seat could be filled.
The indictment against Dukes accuses her of converting campaign cash to personal use by taking two reimbursement checks from the Austin Area Urban League African American Community Heritage Festival and depositing them into an account for her own use. According to the American-Statesman:
The grand jury accused Dukes of converting to personal use campaign expenditures that were earmarked for the African-American Community Heritage Festival, an East Austin event Dukes co-founded 18 years ago but ended last year after negative attention caused by the investigation. Dukes has listed at least $17,600 in campaign expenditures for the festival, including $303 to an electronics store for “replacement of digital camera broken by staff,” $146 for Mardi Gras beads and more than $7,000 for musical performers, the Statesman investigation found.
The 13 charges for tampering with public records concern allegations that Dukes collected pay from the state during the 2014 legislative interim for days that she did not travel to the Capitol, which is required under House rules. The American-Statesman in May reported that a former Dukes staffer had accused the legislator of filing requests for per diem payments for days that she never traveled to the Capitol and may not have worked at all.
She is not the first to face this dilemma. Former Texas Attorney General Dan Morales spent time in federal prison for converting campaign funds to personal use by giving himself a short-term loan for the purchase of a mansion. State Representative Charles Staniswalis, an Amarillo Republican, pleaded guilty to filing false travel vouchers in 1990. Former El Paso Democratic Representive Bobby Valles served a short prison sentence after using state money to pay off a gambling debt. In the most high profile case, state Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison was indicted in 1994 on charges of using state employees to conduct campaign-related work for her, but she was acquitted when then-Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle declined to prosecute the case.
It now is up to the criminal justice system to determine whether Dukes broke the law or just engaged in politics as usual out there on the edge where backs are scratched, deals are done, and sometimes money lands where it doesn’t belong.