State Rep. Dawnna Dukes was nearly 40 minutes late for her Texas Tribune interview Tuesday, but she made up for lost time with explosive allegations that fellow Democratic Reps. Donna Howard and Celia Israel of Austin were behind an effort to oust her from her job.
Howard and Israel undermined Dukes’ legislation behind the scenes and kept her colleagues from offering her the courtesy of voting for her when she was elsewhere on the floor, Dukes said.
“Donna Howard was the ringleader, and Celia Israel followed up,” Dukes said.
Both Howard and Israel were taken aback by what they said were groundless accusations.
“I was shocked and didn’t know what to make of those comments,” Israel said. “She didn’t talk to me about them.”
Dukes also described the American-Statesman coverage of her, which preceeded her indictment by the Travis County District Attorney’s office on 13 felony corruption charges and two misdemeanor counts, as like that of a “rag magazine, pushing the DA to indict.”
“That was malicious,” Dukes said.
Dukes said that Statesman never told her side of the story, and at some point she stopped responding to its inquiries.
The District Attorney’s office last month dropped its corruption case against Dukes.
In January, Dukes was charged with 13 felony counts of tampering with public records and two misdemeanor counts of abuse of official capacity. The charges carried a combined maximum penalty of 28 years behind bars and $138,000 in fines.
The Statesman wrote numerous stories about Dukes leading up to her indictment, and since, and in all cases, asked for her response and included any on-the-record comments she provided. Dukes often declined to provide on-the-record comments.
In April 2016, the Statesman reported that Dukes had arranged to give a taxpayer-funded raise to an aide to cover gas money for driving Dukes’ daughter to and from school.
In May 2016, the Statesman 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 might not have worked at all.
In June 2016, a Statesman investigation found that Dukes had made numerous questionable expenditures from her campaign account over the years, including $13,000 in payments to family members, $30,000 on gas and $2,700 to a seamstress.
But the case against her collapsed amid conflicting statements by a key witness and botched analysis of evidence by the the Texas Department of Public Safety. Last month, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore decided to drop the felony counts against Dukes, and drop the misdemeanor counts in exchange for Dukes agreeing to pay $1,840 in fines and restitution to the state and return $5,200 to her campaign account.
Dukes told moderator Evan Smith, the co-founder and CEO of the Texas Tribune, that she paid no restitution — her attorneys did.
“They’ve got a lot of money,” Dukes said. ” I paid them $138,000.”
Dukes said that race played a role in the campaign against her, with “more stories than O.J.”
“The machine that works in this city uses the media to try people,” Dukes said, describing herself as the fourth African-American local elected official targeted in recent decades. She said that leading African-Americans in the Texas House and black members of Congress from Texas had rallied behind her.
After Dukes’ interview at the Austin Club downtown, Wilhelmina Delco, a pathbreaking African-American former state legislator from Austin, approached Dukes to give her a hug and congratulate her on a performance that she said was “calm, cool and collected.”
Smith asked what would have happened if this had been Donna Howard instead of Dawnna Dukes, and Dukes replied, “she would not have been indicted.”
In her conversation with Smith, and in an interview with the American-Statesman immediately after, Dukes said that it had become clear to her this year that Howard and Israel were instrumental in an effort to undermine her tenure, much to the dismay, she said, of members of the House from outside Travis County, one of whom told her the behavior of her local delegation was “weird.”
Dukes said associates of Howard and Israel are supporting the campaign of former Austin City Council Member Sheryl Cole, one of several Democrats challenging her in the March primary.
In a statement, Howard, who is out of town, said, “I’m sorry that she feels that way. I was not working as any kind of a ringleader against her. I have stayed out of this race and I intend to continue to stay out of this race.”
Israel said Dukes’ accusation came from out of the blue and was untrue.
“So I don’t want to speak ill of my colleague, I try to respect everyone,” said Israel, noting that she and Dukes generally see eye-to-eye on issues.
“I would not gain anything by undermining a colleague,” Israel said.
Dukes told Smith, “I’ve got more done in the Legislature than most of the other members of the (Austin) delegation.”
But this session, she said, “There was a concerted effort by members of the local delegation to keep my legislation from passing.”
She said that her fellow representatives wouldn’t vote on her behalf — a common practice — when she was on the floor but away from her desk, part of what she said was an effort orchestrated by her detractors made easier because she had no desk mate and her seat is directly in front of media table.
“There was a concerted effort to make sure only one button wasn’t pushed,” Dukes said.
Dukes revealed that among her medical maladies, she suffers simultaneously from multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis.
But, at the end of her interview Tuesday, Dukes said, “I am healthy enough to serve. I’m wearing my high heels.”
Smith said that Dukes had called to say she was going to be late because of a family emergency.