Questions about Texas Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ use of her staff are not going away anytime soon. Fortunately for Dukes, the latest news that Travis County prosecutors have opened an investigation comes after the Democratic primary.
The 11-term Austin Democrat has taken heat in recent months for directing state employees to raise money for an East Austin nonprofit event, the African-American Community Heritage Festival, and for having staff members do personal errands and chores for her.
Dukes does not dispute that her staff worked on the festival and maintains that she never violated state law. She is correct that constituent relations is a fairly broad category of work. State legislators march in parades, throw their considerable weight behind local causes and devote staff resources to help in that effort. She told Statesman reporter Sean Collins Walsh:
“There is nothing in the statute that prohibits a legislator or an elected official from doing any work that benefits their constituency or organizations … that serve their constituencies,” Dukes said of the 17-year-old Heritage Festival, which raises scholarship money for Huston-Tillotson University students.
However, the other accusations are concerning, especially the requirement that staffers care for Dukes’ daughter. If not a true legal case of improper use of staff for non-governmental duties, it certainly signals poor judgement.
The fact that Dukes says that she provided room and board in exchange for the work does not matter. Serving as an after-school nanny is a bit different than fetching the occasional cup of coffee and picking up the dry cleaning. It’s an arrangement that tips the balance of power too far in the employer’s direction, especially for a public employee. The arrangement makes it impossible to separate which duties are for the taxpayers and which work is personal.
I’m certainly sympathetic to the struggles of a working mother, but mixing personal and professional as Dukes has is unwise. We’ll leave to prosecutors and investigators to determine if it is illegal.
The reports on the subject by the Statesman and the Texas Tribune pile on top of concerns raised last session over Dukes’ frequent absenteeism for missed votes. She has explained that she was still recovering from a 2013 car accident.
Dukes was unopposed in the March Democratic primary. She does face Republican Gabriel Nila in November, however her district is solidly blue and at this moment an upset seems unlikely, especially with the Travis County Republican Party still trying to sort out how to deal with its new Party Chairman Robert Morrow. Things could change if the investigation goes badly for Dukes.