A Texas prosecutor was once fond of saying there are crimes and there are sins, and you can only prosecute the crimes. On Monday, state Representative Dawnna Dukes’s lies and misuse of office were downgraded from potential felonies to mere transgressions.
A Travis County grand jury indicted Dukes this past January on thirteen counts of feloniously tampering with a government record by filing requests for daily legislative pay even when she didn’t go to the Capitol to work. But as prosecutors prepared for trial last month, they discovered that the House does not actually enforce its written rule that lawmakers must physically work from the Capitol to draw daily pay. That unraveled the key to the indictments, which was that Dukes claimed to have worked at the Capitol when she did not.
“Because the HBO (House Budget Office) did not enforce the House rule requiring travel to the Capitol, and because of the lack of House policies regarding the type of activities that would qualify as legislative business, we cannot demonstrate that Rep. Dukes received payments because of her false statements,” Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said in a statement.
Still, Moore made clear that Dukes lied. “Representative Dukes filed vouchers stating that she was entitled to the per diem reimbursement because she traveled to the Capitol to conduct legislative business,” Moore said in the statement. “However, evidence acquired during the investigation demonstrated that one a number of days claimed, she had not, in fact, traveled to the Capitol.”
Dukes was accused of cheating the state out of about $61 a day. To clear two misdemeanor charges against her, Dukes repaid the state $1,340 for salary paid to one of her aides for transporting her daughter. Dukes also paid a $500 fine to the Texas Ethics Commission and reimbursed her campaign fund $5,230 that had gone to personal use.
“Representative Dukes was innocent from day one,” Dukes’s lawyer Dane Ball said in a statement. “She could have resigned to avoid these charges, but had the courage to fight for the truth.”
Dukes missed most of the 2015 legislative session, and the following year she became the subject of a criminal investigation into alleged misuse of staff and government funds. She implied to her constituents that if she was re-elected she would resign before taking office. She did not, and then was absent for most of the 2017 legislative session. Her absence, along with her failure to adequately represent her district, landed her on the 2017 Texas Monthly Worst legislator list.
Prosecutors last month said Dukes responded to a subpoena for her cell phone by giving a different phone to investigators, and they also claimed that Dukes was spending nearly $1,000 a week calling a psychic. The source of that money was unclear.
Dukes’s personal problems began with a 2013 car wreck that left her in constant pain. But she clearly turned the perks of her office into personal privilege and cheated her constituents out of the representation they deserved.
What Dukes did is clearly not a crime. But voters will decide whether she deserves absolution for her sin.