Former Maryland state Del. Michael L. Vaughn argued that the bundles of cash he collected from liquor store owners and a lobbyist in 2015 and 2016 were merely campaign contributions — expressions of appreciation from constituents that he failed to report because he was in a personal financial hole.
But what campaign contribution, federal prosecutors asked, is picked up in a Starbucks bathroom? Palmed in a dark restaurant? Or collected in a car outside a sandwich shop and immediately deposited in a bank?
None, prosecutors said, because they were bribes, not donations.
On Thursday, a jury agreed with the government, finding Vaughn guilty of conspiracy and bribery for accepting cash in exchange for votes to expand liquor sales in Prince George’s County.
The conviction comes almost a year after Vaughn, 60, was arrested in a wide-reaching federal corruption probe that included the use of wiretaps, exchanges of thousands of dollars and an FBI raid on the offices of the local liquor board. Eight people were netted in what investigators called “Operation Dry Saloon,” including liquor store owners, lobbyists, former liquor board commissioners and ex-lawmaker William A. Campos. All pleaded guilty except Vaughn.
“We respect the verdict of the jury,” Vaughn’s attorney William Purpura said after the group of seven women and five men announced its decision. “Obviously, Michael Vaughn is disappointed. . . . Mike believed in his own mind that he did not take cash to influence his vote.”
Over six days of trial in U.S. District Court in Maryland, Vaughn and the government agreed that he took cash on multiple occasions from liquor store owners and their representatives to solve his personal money problems, but they disagreed on why he accepted the money in 2015 and 2016.
Purpura said in closing arguments that Vaughn voted to approve the bill lifting the ban on Sunday liquor sales in Prince George’s because it was beneficial for the community, not as a favor for any specific person.
Prince George’s Councilwoman Andrea Harrison testified as a defense witness, saying the county estimated it was losing about $1 million in tax revenue annually to neighboring jurisdictions that sell liquor on Sundays.
“Michael Vaughn’s intent was to benefit Prince George’s County, in particular his district, with Sunday sales,” Purpura said. “Michael Vaughn did not assert any undue influence” on changing the law because of a payoff.
The more than $15,000 in funds that Vaughn, a Prince George’s Democrat, took were unreported campaign contributions, which violated ethics rules but were not a bribe, Purpura and his colleague Teresa Whalen argued.
Campaign finance rules set limits on donations, which Vaughn exceeded, and the rules bar accepting campaign finance funds while the legislature is in session, which Vaughn also did, trial evidence showed. The campaign finance rules also require public disclosure of funds, which Vaughn did not do.
Federal prosecutors argued that if the cash handoffs were, indeed, campaign finance contributions, why didn’t they occur at fundraisers or other public events?
“Would how a bill becomes a law involve a Starbucks bathroom, cash in hand?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Phil Selden asked the jury in closing arguments, during which he held a stack of cash in one hand and a copy of the Sunday Sales law in another.
In one video captured by a government informant at a restaurant, Vaughn is asked if he wanted the money at that moment.
“Sure, ain’t nobody in here,” Vaughn replies on the video, which was aired in court.
He then leans over to see if anyone is around before palming money slid to him from across a table.
Prosecutors said Vaughn and former chief liquor inspector David Son concocted a quid-pro-quo scheme at a Subway steps away from the State House in Annapolis. Local liquor store owners Young Paig and Shin Ja Lee would pay Vaughn $20,000 over two years for Vaughn’s help in lifting the ban on Sunday sales. Vaughn had originally asked for $500 a month in perpetuity from all liquor store owners interested in the bill, prosecutors said.
The House and Senate eventually passed the bill, which Gov. Larry Hogan (R) signed into law.
Vaughn, who voted against a version of the bill in 2014, voted in favor of it in 2015 as a member of the Prince George’s delegation, as a member of the Economic Matters Committee and on the floor of the House of Delegates.
Paig, Lee and Son pleaded guilty in the case and testified as government witnesses during Vaughn’s trial. The three are awaiting sentencing.
As part of his plea, Son said that while he acted as a middleman, he also tipped off targets in the bribery scheme to the FBI probe.
Campos, a former Maryland state delegate and former Prince George’s Council member, is also awaiting sentencing. Campos pleaded guilty to taking bribes and kickbacks in exchange for funneling county money designated to nonprofits to those who paid him off.
Vaughn resigned from the legislature shortly after the corruption probe was made public and minutes before the start of the 2017 legislative session. He initially cited health reasons for stepping down, but in court his attorneys said he also resigned due to his ethical violations involving the cash he accepted.
Vaughn, who served on the legislature for 14 years starting in 2003, declined to comment after the verdict.
When asked after the trial why Vaughn did not report the cash he received as campaign donations as Vaughn had characterized them, Purpura said “those are ethical violations and that’s troubling.”
A sentencing hearing has not been set for Vaughn, who also faces a separate trial on alleged misuse of campaign finance dollars. He faces up to 45 years in prison for the four bribery counts and one conspiracy count.
One woman who was on the jury who declined to be named for privacy concerns said it wasn’t a singular piece of evidence that led to the conviction but the accumulation of materials presented at trial.
“The prosecution had a lot of evidence,” she said. “If you’re going to do wrong, one way or another it’s going to catch up with you.”