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State Rep. Dawnna Dukes' case headed to grand jury next week

Travis County prosecutors will ask a grand jury to indict State Rep. Dawnna Dukes next Tuesday, KXAN reported Tuesday.

State Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, on the House floor for opening day of the 85th Legislature on January 10, 2017.

*Correction appended.

Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.

Travis County prosecutors will present its case against state Rep. Dawnna Dukes next week for a possible indictment, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said Tuesday.

The announcement comes hours after Dukes, an Austin Democrat, was sworn in for the 85th Legislative Session on Tuesday afternoon, despite announcing in September that she would resign in January.  The news of prosecutors' plans to present the case to a grand jury next week was first reported Tuesday by KXAN.

Moore told the Tribune that Dukes' earlier announcement that she planned to resign last year held up plans to present the case against her to a grand jury.

"This case was ready for presentment to a grand jury months ago and it was delayed at [Dukes'] request so she'd be able to resign and then negotiate the case," Moore told the Tribune late Tuesday. "Today was the day in which she was going to resign."

Among the charges Dukes could face is abuse of official capacity and tampering with public records, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

Former staff members have accused Dukes of seeking reimbursement from the state for travel payments she was not entitled to. In February, the Tribune reported that the state auditor’s office was investigating her use of state workers for personal projects. In April, the Texas Rangers joined a criminal investigation into Dukes’ behavior and presented their findings to the  Travis County DA's office.

After being sworn in, Dukes, when asked if she had misused legislative staffers or funding, denied the allegations.

"You can look at the statute, you can look at the laws, you can look at the rules, it answers it for itself," Dukes said. "If you just read it or ask the folks in charge of those divisions up here.”

She also said she has not been in contact with the prosecution’s office and brushed off rumors that she would have received reduced or dropped charges if she had gone through with her resignation.

“The only thing I know is what I read in the paper,” Dukes said.

Her resignation reversal and the grand jury indictment is only fueling passions of those hoping to replace her in the Texas House.

On Tuesday morning, former Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole issued a news release with her first financial report and a list of people backing her House run — including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin. Despite Dukes’ contention that she now plans to represent her district for this session, Cole maintains that it’s time for new representation.

"It’s not about one person, it’s about the people," Cole said. "Too much is at stake, it is time for a fresh start."

During a campaign event Tuesday, Cole maintained that the district — which includes parts of Austin, Pflugerville and Manor — was in need of new representation. Cole went further with implying that she plans to challenge Dukes in the 2018 Democratic primary election.

“I’m all in whether there’s a special election or it’s in the Democratic primary,” said Cole.

Others in the district have also expressed an interest in running for the seat if Dukes resigns, which would prompt Gov. Greg Abbott to call a special election. Democrat Jose “Chito” Vela's campaign has said it is moving forward with plans to hold a campaign kick-off event Thursday evening.

Moore said her office plans to begin presenting the case against Dukes to a grand jury on Tuesday, Jan. 17. The timeline beyond that is difficult to predict, she said.

"There's a lot of different factors involved," Moore said. "Although we plan to present on Tuesday, there may have to be more time spent in front of the grand jury and I can't predict any of that." 

Dukes said Tuesday that the news of her return to the House and legal troubles was “great fodder” for candidates to challenge her. Despite the headlines, Dukes said she is still a “power player” in the legislature, pointing out her 20-plus years in the House and institutional knowledge on a variety of issues. She also said that some members of the Legislature, citing the recent retirements of Democratic stalwarts like Sylvester Turner, Ruth McClendon, Trey Martinez Fischer and Rodney Ellis, urged Dukes to stay “because they didn’t want my expertise to leave with everyone else.”

Dukes had not filed any bills for the session as of Tuesday.

Dukes is vying for House Speaker Joe Straus to reappoint her to two key subcommittees on the powerful Appropriations Committee. Yet Dukes' future in the House remains hazy. She was unable to get her old office back in time for the session.

Yet Dukes insisted Tuesday that the best situation for her district is for her to stay in the House.

"I heard even some of those opponents say 'Well you're concerned that there won't be someone here to cast a vote because the governor will have to appoint someone,'" Dukes said. "We don't have that problem anymore."

Read related Tribune coverage:

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized an Austin American-Statesman report about the charges state Rep. Dawnna Dukes could face as part of an investigation by the Travis County District Attorney's office.

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Politics State government 85th Legislative Session Dawnna Dukes Texas Legislature