Berwyn Heights resident Ron Luftman says he was not surprised when he heard the federal government was charging another Prince George’s County politician with a crime. But he was unnerved to learn the elected official was Tawanna P. Gaines, his longtime state representative.
“She was supposed to be one of us,” Luftman said the other day, sitting in the senior center next to the town hall where Gaines, 67, began her political career as a member of the town council. “She had a reputation for helping the little guy. But I guess no politician helps the little guy.”
Gaines (D), who had a leadership role in the Maryland legislature before her abrupt resignation on Oct. 4, was charged with federal wire fraud Wednesday over allegedly using $22,000 in campaign funds for personal expenses. The crime appears to be smaller in scope than those committed by other Prince George’s politicians, whose acceptance of cash bribes gave the county a reputation for corruption. But it nonetheless was met with frustration and sadness — at the highest levels of local government and in close-knit Berwyn Heights.
Gaines’s attorney, William C. Brennan Jr., declined to comment, citing the pending case against the 18-year delegate, who according to court filings is expected to appear at a hearing on Thursday to enter a guilty plea.
County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said in an interview that she worries the case will damage the county’s reputation, making it more difficult to attract the kind of businesses and investments residents deserve.
“Few people were more disappointed than I was,” Alsobrooks said. “Actions have consequences. Her actions have consequences for her and for this county.”
Former county executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) echoed other leaders who were stunned by the alleged wrongdoing, recalling that Gaines had supported his efforts to pass ethics reforms after former county executive Jack B. Johnson’s arrest on public corruption charges in 2010.
“This is something that hits you way out of left field,” Baker said. “This is not a minor player. It’s someone who delivered for the county and the state.”
Gaines is accused of soliciting campaign donations that were directed to a PayPal account that was not disclosed in state campaign finance filings, then using the money for expenses not related to her job or political career.
She is the third Democratic politician from Prince George’s to face criminal charges related to financial misconduct in the past two years — following former state delegates Michael L. Vaughn and William A. Campos, who were involved in a bribery scandal. Two former lawmakers from Baltimore have also been sentenced in the past two years on charges related to financial wrongdoing.
“I certainly don’t like these numbers regarding Prince George’s,” said Del. Michael A. Jackson (D), who heads the Prince George’s House delegation and said he has considered Gaines a friend for 20 years. “But we’ll get through it. . . . At the end of the day, you’re just going to find a lot of sad hearts.”
Some Prince George’s officials said they believe politicians from the county, a majority-black jurisdiction where most elected officials are African American, are more heavily scrutinized than politicians in mostly white jurisdictions — and that the county’s reputation is harder hit by the failings of its elected officials than in other jurisdictions.
In neighboring Washington, they pointed out, D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who is white, remains in office despite being embroiled in an ethics scandal that led to an FBI raid on his Georgetown house. (Evans has not been charged with wrongdoing, however. And Republican members of Congress have cited the questions about his alleged conduct as one reason the District should not become a state.)
“Some people are quick to condemn and say, ‘Here we go again, Prince George’s,’ ” said Greenbelt Mayor Emmett Jordan, urging people to avoid jumping to conclusions or rushing to condemn Gaines as corrupt before more information is available. “But there is more scrutiny about things that happen in Prince George’s . . . I don’t think these sorts of things aren’t happening in other jurisdictions.”
The Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee has until Nov. 4 to propose a replacement for Gaines to Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Committee Chair Cheryl Landis said she is in the process of scheduling a public hearing in District 22, which Gaines represented, where interested candidates can testify. The central committee will then vote.
Both Nicole Williams and Ashanti Martinez, who both ran unsuccessfully last year for one of the district’s three House seats, said they are interested in seeking the appointment. Jordan said he is considering vying for the seat, as well.
Williams and Martinez said the departure of Gaines, who was the vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, will leave a void in the legislature.
“Her knowledge and skill set is something that is going to be sorely missed for Prince George’s,” said Williams, who came in fourth in last year’s Democratic primary.
Martinez, who came in fifth, said he is “shocked that this is how her legacy will be remembered.”
The two aspiring lawmakers also said they hope the episode leads to a conversation about salaries for state representatives, who are paid about $50,000 for what is considered a part-time position.
In the senior center in Berwyn Heights, a wooded enclave between Greenbelt and College Park, residents said Thursday that they were appalled when they learned of the allegation against Gaines, who used to frequently stop by the center. Gaines was elected in the 1990s as the first African American council member in Berwyn Heights, and she served as the town’s first female mayor.
Luftman, while holding court in the senior center after lunch, said he was told — incorrectly — that Gaines had stolen $220,000 in campaign funds.
“It was $22,000,” a longtime resident in a pink sweater, who declined to give her name, corrected him from across the room. “And no politics allowed here!”
Town manager Maria Broadbent described Gaines as an “active listener and kindhearted person” who was invested in the people of Berwyn Heights. She declined to comment on the charges against the former delegate.
Walking her dog outside the town hall, Shira Frances, who moved to Berwyn Heights last year, said she didn’t know Gaines but was disappointed to hear about the charges.
“Are we becoming Baltimore?” she asked, referring to a corruption investigation of former Baltimore mayor Catherine E. Pugh (D) and other recent scandals in that city. “It would be great to have politicians who weren’t corrupt.”
Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.