Maryland Del. Tiffany Alston is found guilty of theft charges
By John Wagner,
Maryland Del. Tiffany T. Alston was found guilty Tuesday of stealing $800 from the General Assembly to pay an assistant at her private law firm, a verdict that probably will force the Prince George’s Democrat from office.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Harris Jr. delayed sentencing until at least October, after Alston, 35, is scheduled to stand trial on separate charges that she misused campaign funds to cover personal expenses, including $3,560 for her wedding.
Attorneys for Alston, who was elected in 2010 with a storied background but has since been the subject of repeated controversy, vowed to appeal Tuesday’s verdict. They argued that the charges of theft and misconduct in office were built on hearsay and ambiguous statements to investigators by Alston’s assistant.
Under the Maryland Constitution, elected officials are automatically suspended from office at the time of sentencing if convicted of a crime that is related to their public duties and has a potential penalty of incarceration. Once a conviction becomes final, the office-holder must step down and can be reinstated only if the conviction if reversed.
During the week-long trial, Rayshawn Ford, 25, testified that she in fact had done legislative work for Alston in January 2011, the delegate’s first month in office, working out of a district office in Lanham that was maintained inside Alston’s suite of law offices.
But prosecutors sought to discredit Ford’s testimony, arguing that she changed her story out of loyalty to Alston, whom she described as her “mentor” and “role model.” Investigators testified that Ford told them Alston was paying her with legislative funds for legal work done at her cash-strapped law firm.
“We’re very pleased with the verdict,” State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said. “Elected officials are entrusted with public resources, and they’re not for personal use.”
Rauof M. Abdullah, an attorney for Alston, described his client as “devastated” by the verdict, which came after close to five hours of jury deliberations
“This is not a settled matter,” Abdullah said. “All of our rights have not been exhausted.”
Alston declined to talk to reporters Tuesday.
She received a good deal of attention at the time of her 2010 election because she had been among the 59 grade-school students from humble backgrounds in Seat Pleasant that Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin and a friend had helped go to college.
Alston again made headlines a few months into office after she withdrew her support in dramatic fashion from a same-sex marriage bill that she had previously agreed to co-sponsor. (This year, she voted for the measure on the House floor.)
Defense lawyers claimed out of court that Alston’s first switch on gay nuptials and her later objections to a congressional redistricting plan offered by Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) fueled prosectors’ interest in her — a notion Davitt vigorously denied.
“She has essentially been hounded by this office,” Abdullah said after Tuesday’s verdict.
Alston faces up to 18 months of incarceration, a $500 fine and restitution on the theft charge. The penalty for misconduct in office is an unspecified sanction that can include incarceration.
The prosecution largely built its case around testimony from its investigators, as well as evidence that cast doubt on claims made by Ford and other Alston aides.
James Goff, the fiscal operations officer for the Maryland Department of Legislative Services, testified that Alston did not register a district office until January 2012, a year after Ford was paid with legislative funds.
Alicia Adams, an aide to Del. Jay Walker (D-Prince George’s), told the jury that she was not aware that Alston had a district office and that she had never heard of Ford. Alston and Walker share an office suite in Annapolis.
A bank officer also testified that Alston’s law firm bounced 49 checks during 2010. Prosecutors alleged that Alston used General Assembly funds to pay Ford $10 an hour because of financial troubles at Alston’s law firm.
The defense case featured a current legislative aide to Alston, as well as a former one. Both testified that Ford performed legislative work for Alston in her legislative district office in Lanham. The prosecution elicited testimony that both were friendly with Alston and had known her for some time.
In its rebuttal case, the prosecution also presented an employee of the General Assembly who testified that Alston did not have official stationery available bearing the address of her district office before February 2011. That was intended to discredit defense witnesses who said Ford’s duties included sending out letters from the district office on Alston’s stationery in January 2011.