In a 34-page ruling, Nichols decided that Tiffany Alston was appropriately removed from her seat in October when she was convicted of misconduct in office, a conviction that technically vanished a month later when she paid a fine, completed community service and received what is known as probation before judgment. Nichols also ruled that until O’Malley appoints a successor, the Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee could withdraw its nomination of former drug dealer Gregory Hall, a move the panel’s chairman says is imminent.
Raquel Guillory, O’Malley’s spokeswoman, said the governor was “very pleased with the outcome.” She said he would evaluate whether he or Prince George’s Democrats would make the next selection for the seat. Whoever is appointed will serve the remainder of Alston’s term.
In sorting through the legal morass, Nichols began with Alston, whose attorney had argued in an hours-long hearing Tuesday that her conviction was never final because the probation before judgment was expected as part of a plea deal.
Nichols treated the ousted delegate harshly, saying that allowing her “to retain her seat despite her finding of guilt and conviction frustrates the very purpose of [the Maryland Constitution]: to restore the public trust in our elected officials and the institutions in which they serve.”
Although Nichols declined to rule on when probation before judgment is tantamount to a conviction, he found that Alston was unquestionably convicted and that the conviction was unquestionably final because she had waived all her appeal rights. That “final conviction” is what triggered her removal from office.
“The fact that Ms. Alston’s guilty verdict was ‘struck’ 35 days after she was sentenced does not mean the conviction never occurred,” Nichols wrote.
Raouf M. Abdullah, Alston’s attorney, said Wednesday that he planned to appeal to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
“Ms. Alston doesn’t have a conviction today, so the final conviction doesn’t exist,” he said.
With Alston considered legally removed from the seat, Nichols then turned to the selection of her successor. The Prince George’s committee had nominated Hall, an admitted former drug dealer who was convicted of a misdemeanor gun charge in the early 1990s in the fatal shooting of a 13-year-old. When O’Malley did not rubber-stamp the appointment and then asked the committee to withdraw it, Hall sued. He said that O’Malley was bound to follow the committee’s will and that the panel had no legal right to take his name off the table.
Nichols disagreed, ruling that although the law might not say so explicitly, the committee could withdraw a name until the governor had approved it. He ruled that although the committee had 30 days to send a name to the governor, the governor was not legally bound to accept it, unless they were to leave Hall’s name as nominee.
Now, Nichols said, were the committee to withdraw Hall’s name, O’Malley would be able to pick any successor of his choosing. Hall said he planned to appeal the ruling.
“The governor has to abide by the same rules of the Constitution that we abide by, and he didn’t,” Hall said. “It’s politics over law.”
Terry Speigner, the chairman of the Prince George’s Democratic Central Committee, said the 24-member panel probably would meet Saturday to withdraw Hall’s name. Attorneys for the committee had said previously that members wanted to withdraw Hall’s name once they found out about his past but that they held off because of the legal dispute.
While the lawsuits were pending, the committee took a straw vote last week to measure sentiment about Hall and voted to withdraw his name. Speigner said he expects the committee to formalize that on Saturday.
Speigner, a Prince George’s businessman who had run against Hall to fill Alston’s seat and lost, said he did not know the timetable for the selection. He said he was no longer a candidate.