But prosecutors for the government argued that the more than $15,000 that changed hands in a coffee shop bathroom, a dark restaurant and other locations throughout the county were bribes.
In his first public remarks about the case since he resigned from the legislature last year, Vaughn, 60, spoke briefly during his sentencing hearing. He stood in a gray suit and told the judge that he was “devastated by the hurt and pain” he caused and wanted to “express my sincerest apologies” to his family and constituents.
Sentencing Judge Paula Xinis called Vaughn’s misconduct “exceptionally serious” and “grievous bribery.”
Vaughn was one of seven arrested last year in a federal corruption case that investigators called “Operation Dry Saloon.” Liquor store owners, lobbyists, former liquor board commissioners and former Prince George’s County Council member William A. Campos (D) conspired to pass laws that would allow for Sunday liquor sales in the county in exchange for cash.
Vaughn served in the legislature for 14 years starting in 2003 and resigned from the legislature minutes before the start of the 2017 session, shortly after the liquor board investigation was made public.
Vaughn was the only defendant who took his case to trial. The others pleaded guilty, and most have been sentenced.
Vaughn’s attorneys, William Purpura and Theresa Whalen, argued that Vaughn voted for legislation lifting the ban on Sunday liquor sales because the county was losing tax revenue to the District and other neighboring jurisdictions that permitted the sales.
Purpura said during Vaughn’s sentencing that as a delegate, his client would often vote in accordance with committee recommendations and that while it was wrong to take the money, Vaughn did not necessarily change his votes. Purpura said Vaughn took the cash because “he was in a bad financial situation. . . . He was overextended.”
“I believe Mr. Vaughn never changed his vote for any amount of cash,” Purpura said.
Prosecutors, however, argued that Vaughn and former chief liquor inspector David Son hashed out a scheme in which local liquor store owners Young Paig and Shin Ja Lee would pay Vaughn $20,000 over two years to clear the way for Sunday sales.
The House and Senate eventually passed the bill, which Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed into law.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Windom said Vaughn was a savvy legislator who was smarter than someone who merely voted in compliance with committee recommendations. Vaughn was a deputy whip, a house leader and “in the fray . . . playing politics.”
“He fully embraced the pay-to-play culture that has been a repeat phrase in this court for a decade,” Windom said, alluding to the 87-month sentence former Prince George’s County executive Jack Johnson received for bribery and corruption.
While most bribery cases are driven by greed, Vaughn’s case was underpinned by need, the judge said. “Your public office became at least one avenue to stop that financial blood flow, and I find that tragic,” Xinis said.
Vaughn was also charged with funneling more than $100,000 in campaign donations to support himself. The jury never considered those wire fraud counts because the charges were separated from the bribery and corruption case. The government said Tuesday that it would drop the related wire fraud charges.
At the end of the sentencing hearing, Xinis thanked the FBI agents who investigated the case, saying she hoped that she would not see them in court again for future public corruption cases but added, “I am not so naive.”