At the 35-minute hearing, the Prince George’s County Democrat admitted to using $22,000 in donations between January 2015 and April 2018 to purchase fast food, get her hair styled, pay for dental work and purchase a pool cover at her home, Amazon Prime membership and Amazon Fire TV stick.
According to prosecutors, Gaines withdrew approximately $1,952.75 in cash from ATMs and electronically transferred at least $2,061.55 from her campaign PayPal account directly to her personal checking account. Court documents do not offer a detailed accounting of the rest of the money Gaines admitted to using improperly.
U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang asked Gaines whether she understood that she was giving up her right to a trial.
“Are you pleading guilty of your own free will?” Chuang asked.
“Yes,” Gaines said clearly and without hesitation. As Chuang continued to explain the procedure, Gaines sat with her hand beneath her chin, occasionally sipping water from a Dixie cup.
She did not give a statement in court and answered each question from Chuang with yes or no.
The federal wire fraud conviction carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, but according to sentencing guidelines, Gaines could face eight to 33 months in prison.
As part of the plea agreement, Gaines must pay restitution of $22,565.03. Sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 3.
Gaines is the third Democratic state lawmaker from Prince George’s to face criminal charges for financial misconduct in the past two years. In 2018, former delegates Michael Vaughn and William A. Campos were sentenced to four and 4½ years in federal prison, respectively, for a pay-to-play bribery scheme involving liquor licenses.
The charges against Gaines left county residents stunned, saddened and frustrated.
“Our elected officials are entrusted to make decisions in the best interests of the people they represent, not to use their positions of authority to line their own pockets,” U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur said during a news conference outside the courthouse. Hur would not comment on how the FBI became aware of Gaines’s misconduct.
Gaines, who surrendered her passport and was released on her own recognizance, also spoke outside the courthouse, urging the public not to view other lawmakers negatively because of her behavior.
“I don’t want any of you to judge the Maryland General Assembly by that,” she said. “There are honorable people working there. I want to apologize to them for putting myself in this position.”
Gaines began her lengthy political career on the Berwyn Heights Town Council, eventually attaining a House leadership post and building a reputation as a hard-working and thoughtful legislator.
But Gaines also repeatedly flouted campaign finance rules. Regulators cited her 13 times since 2006 and fined her more than $2,000 for bookkeeping errors in her campaign finance reports, records show. In 2016, Gaines was referred to the Office of the State Prosecutor, the state agency that oversees corruption.
She was vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee and was tapped earlier this year to negotiate how to spend the state’s $2 billion capital budget. A vocal advocate for investments in transportation, she was a key champion of the Purple Line, a 16-mile light-rail system that will extend from Bethesda in Montgomery County to New Carrollton in Prince George’s County.
She served as deputy majority whip from 2003 to 2007, vice chair of the Prince George’s House delegation from 2007 to 2008 and assistant majority leader in 2015.
After being appointed to a vacant House seat in 2001, Gaines was elected to a full four-year term in 2002. In 2009, she received a distinguished legislator award from the Maryland Municipal League. In 2015, she was given the Casper R. Taylor Jr. Founder’s Award, which honors a delegate who serves with integrity and a focus on public service.
On Thursday, about half a dozen members of Gaines’s family sat behind her in the courtroom. She hugged them as she walked out. One friend wept as she embraced Gaines as she stood outside Courtroom 2B. Leaving the courthouse, they declined to comment.
Also accompanying Gaines was Peggy Higgins, a resident of Greenbelt and a former Prince George’s County school board member who said she has known Gaines for 10 years. She clutched Gaines’s shoulder as they walked to the elevator.
“I have seen her over the years to be an unfailing advocate for those who are powerless and underserved,” Higgins said. “It just doesn’t fit with what I know about her ethics, her integrity and how she follows proper procedures. It’s who she is. This, I can’t explain.”