Prince George’s lawmaker enters pretrial deal
By Ann E. Marimow,
Del. Tiffany Alston (D-Prince George’s) agreed Tuesday to a pretrial deal that state prosecutors said will lead to her suspension from the Maryland House of Delegates.
But Alston’s attorneys said they are not so sure that the delegate must leave the legislature, and the House speaker’s office is seeking guidance from the state attorney general to resolve the issue.
Alston, 35, was scheduled to face trial Tuesday on charges involving the use of campaign money to pay for some of her wedding expenses. Instead, she pleaded no contest to the charges.
State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said the Maryland constitution requires that Alston give up her seat once a conviction becomes final at the time of sentencing.
The plea agreement allows Alston to avoid a trial and wipes out an earlier finding of guilt on one count of theft. She was convicted in June of misconduct in office and stealing $800 from the General Assembly to pay an employee of her private law firm.
On Tuesday, Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Harris Jr. gave Alston a suspended sentence of one year in jail on the misconduct count. Alston also must pay $800 in restitution to the General Assembly and complete 300 hours of community service.
If Alston meets her obligation to the court, Harris would also clear her of the second finding of guilt, according to the deal.
Leaving the courthouse Tuesday, Alston said that because her case is still under what she called “judicial review,” it will be up to attorneys for the General Assembly to determine whether she can remain in office.
Late Tuesday, Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) said the attorney general’s office was interpreting the relevant constitutional language to determine whether Alston could remain in office.
“The law sets the course,” he said.
Alston had for weeks held talks with the state prosecutor’s office about a possible plea agreement, but negotiations stalled last month, in part over the issue of whether she would have to immediately leave office.
The legal troubles are the latest in a series of setbacks for the Prince George’s County lawmaker with a storied past. Alston was among the Seat Pleasant elementary school students in the 1980s who received college tuition help from the late Washington sports team owner Abe Pollin. Last month, the state’s highest court indefinitely suspended Alston’s law license because of complaints from a client.
“The mistakes I have made have been accounting mistakes,” Alston said in court, her voice shaking with emotion as she asked Harris to reduce her three-year period of supervised probation. “I maintain my innocence. There was no criminal misconduct and no criminal intent.”
Alston said she was the target of a politically motivated prosecution. Alston parted ways with the Democratic leadership in Annapolis soon after her 2010 election when she unexpectedly withdrew her support for a same-sex marriage bill after initially agreeing to co-sponsor the legislation.
But prosecutors said the allegations against Alston arose before she took office. Alston was charged with writing $3,560 in checks from her campaign account to pay for wedding expenses in December 2010. Those checks did not clear because of insufficient funds. A week later, prosecutors said, she cashed a check from the account for $1,250.
“This should put to rest any allegation that this was politically motivated,” Davitt said of the timing of the accusations and decision to file charges. “We take this very seriously, whether it’s $800 or $1 million.”
As part of the agreement, Alston did not formally contest the charges in the case involving her wedding expenses. She agreed to pay a civil fine of $500 for violating election laws and received a sentence of probation before judgment in that case.
In her defense, Alston told the judge that she mistakenly wrote checks from her campaign account. She had lent the campaign more than $8,000 and said, “It was my money in that account.”
Alston’s attorney Raouf Abdullah said he hoped that her constituents would “continue to see this as a bump in the road.”
“She will continue to seek vindication,” he said.
Even as Harris, the judge in both cases, offered Alston a second chance Tuesday, he was blunt in his assessment of her behavior. He rejected Alston’s assertion that she was a political target and noted that she “crossed the line into the area of criminal misconduct” even before she was sworn into office.
“It’s a public trust issue, and the public needs to know that the law trumps politics,” Harris said. “It just shows an incredible arrogance on your part.”