Tiffany Alston declared bankruptcy before running for office

Mark Gail/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Tiffany Alston talks with reporters on Oct. 9, 2012, in Annapolis.

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Former Maryland State Del. Tiffany Alston declared bankruptcy seven months before she tried to use her campaign funds to cover her wedding expenses, according to court records.

Alston’s $182,758 in debts included $26,000 she owed her former law partner, who alleged in a lawsuit that Alston had charged tens of thousands of dollars in personal expenses to the firm, the court records show.

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Alston declined to comment on the bankruptcy filing, the existence of which has not been reported before.

“I’m not going to answer any more questions,” the Prince George’s County Democrat said by telephone. Alston also declined to talk about the 2008 lawsuit filed by her former partner, Ara Parker.

Parker and Alston settled their dispute, with Alston agreeing to pay her former partner more than $20,000, the court records show.

Maryland lawmakers, citing the state constitution, stripped Alston of her delegate seat after she was convicted of improperly using state funds to pay an employee of her law firm.

A judge expunged the conviction from Alston’s record after she completed 300 hours of community service. Alston is trying to reclaim her post in an appeal she has filed before Maryland’s highest court, which has scheduled a hearing for Friday.

Alston’s downfall has drawn attention in Prince George’s and beyond. An African American lawyer, she grew up in the county, the daughter of a single mother who struggled to support her and her brother. When she was in fifth grade, two businessmen, Abe Pollin and Melvin Cohen, adopted her class at Seat Pleasant Elementary, promising to pay their college tuition if they finished high school. Alston became one of the program’s stars.

Besides losing her delegate seat, Alston’s license to practice law was suspended by Maryland’s highest court after a client accused her of professional negligence.

Alston filed for bankruptcy in May 2010 as she campaigned for election to the Maryland House of Delegates. She won the race and took office in January 2011.

Eight months later, state prosecutors indicted Alston for seeking to pay $3,560 in wedding expenses by writing two checks drawn from her campaign account. Although the checks bounced, prosecutors said Alston’s crime was that she had attempted to use her political funds for a personal expense.

Alston has said that she mistakenly used a campaign checkbook instead of her personal checkbook, an explanation that prosecutors have dismissed because she wrote two checks on two separate days.

Alston pleaded “no contest” in the case involving her wedding. The prosecutor’s probe of her spending led to a second indictment, this one because she used $800 in taxpayer funds to compensate an employee of her law firm. Alston contended that the employee was performing government work. An Anne Arundel County jury found her guilty in that case.

Although prosecutors were unaware of her bankruptcy, they said during her trial that her law firm had bounced dozens of checks. “We portrayed all along that her finances were in a shambles,” said Emmet Davitt, the prosecutor on the case.

Alston has acknowledged making “careless accounting mistakes,” even as she has said that she never intended to commit a crime. During a recent interview with The Washington Post, she portrayed herself as the victim of a political vendetta and of a racially biased justice system.

Alston has never spoken publicly about declaring bankruptcy.

In her filing, Alston listed as her personal property the $100 she had in her pocket, $50 she had in a personal checking account at Industrial Bank, a sofa, two beds, four chairs, a television, and a 2005 Saab that had 90,000 miles. She listed her income as $3,597 a month. Her monthly expenses were $5,993.

Her list of debts included $132,137 she owed Sallie Mae for student loans; $20,664 she owed on her car loan; more than $4,400 to the state of Maryland; $3,800 she owed AT&T Mobility, Verizon and Pepco; and $3,500 she owed to a Lanham karate school.

Parker, her former law partner, accused her of charging more than $35,000 in personal expenses to their firm in a complaint filed in 2008 in Prince George’s County Circuit Court.

Parker, who declined to comment on the case, and Alston opened a practice together in September 2007, according to the complaint. Alston, the complaint states, was responsible for overseeing the firm’s finances.

Three months later, according to the suit, they dissolved their partnership after Parker discovered that Alston had used the firm’s American Express card to charge $8,557 in expenses of a “personal nature, including a trip to Las Vegas, spa treatments, shoes, dining out, etc.”

Alston, in her response to the complaint that she filed with the court, denied that the charges were personal.

Parker also found that Alston had put $24,496 in charges on the firm’s line of credit at M&T Bank, about $17,000 of which Parker said she had not agreed to, according to the complaint. Parker also learned that the bank account that funded the firm’s day-to-day operations was overdrawn by $5,700.

Parker and Alston dissolved their partnership in December 2007, after which Parker filed the lawsuit.

They settled their dispute in 2009. Alston agreed to pay Parker $20,695, according to court records. Nine months later, Alston declared bankruptcy.

 
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