Tiffany Alston always made things go her way, even with the most difficult hurdles in her path.
She was the first in her family to graduate from college, then earned a law degree and opened a law firm in Prince George’s County. At 32, she entered politics and won a tight race for the Maryland House of Delegates in 2010.
A few weeks before being sworn in, Alston got married at the University of Maryland’s Memorial Chapel, where 100 guests watched her walk down the aisle wearing a strapless ivory gown embroidered with beads and a flowing veil that reached the floor.
The moment was both joyous and poignant. The man escorting Alston to the altar was her father, who had recently been released from prison.
Her future seemed as bountiful as the newlyweds’ three-tiered wedding cake.
“It was everything I ever dreamed of, a sense of completeness,” Alston recalled. “I felt I had accomplished all of the goals I set for myself.”
Yet it was that celebration, and the way Alston sought to pay for a portion of it, that triggered a searing downward spiral. A state investigation into her spending resulted in charges of malfeasance and misconduct.
Two years after her wedding, Alston’s law license has been suspended, she has shut down her practice, and she has lost her seat in the House of Delegates. At her sentencing hearing, a judge rebuked Alston, telling her that she “broke” the public trust and that she had demonstrated “an incredible arrogance.”
The annals of American politics are rife with examples of politicians forced from office because they misappropriated taxpayer funds. Often, the sums have been far greater than the $800 that a jury found Alston guilty of paying to one of her law firm’s employees.
What makes Alston’s fall distinctive is that she was a rising star in politics, a young African American woman with an inspiring past. In Prince George’s, a county reeling from corruption scandals when she was elected, she was part of a new generation of leadership.
“It’s a tragedy, really,” said state Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George’s), who is also a county prosecutor. “Here’s someone who had the values and commitment and vision of changing things for the better, who early on made stupid decisions, and they came back to undo her.
“I think it reflects the way the world works,” he said. “Yes, there are lots of examples where rules are bent or broken. But if you break the rules, you have to be prepared for the consequences.”
During an often tearful and sometimes angry two-hour interview at her home in Bowie, Alston acknowledged making mistakes even as she suggested that she was the victim of a political vendetta and a racially biased justice system. She said she never intended to commit a crime and didn’t deserve to lose her House seat.
Alston has filed an appeal with Maryland’s highest court to reclaim her post, and arguments in the case are scheduled for next month. She said she has not ceased serving her constituents, taking their calls and conveying their concerns.
“My status is I’m a delegate,” she said, even though lawmakers, citing a requirement of the state constitution, stripped her of her title, paycheck and benefits after her conviction.
Alston struggled to make sense of her situation.
“Everything I wanted came true,” she said.
But now: “My name is ruined.”
Until her indictment, Alston’s path had been defined by a series of successes. As a child, she knew she wanted to be a lawyer, an ambition she said was driven by her experience watching her father go to jail for a crime she declined to specify.
During a conversation they had when she was 5 and her father was in prison, Alston recalled, he told her that “you need a good lawyer to help in these situations.” Alston remembered telling her father: “Then I’ll become a lawyer and get you out.”
When she was a fifth-grader at Seat Pleasant Elementary School, she told her teacher she planned on becoming a lawyer.
“That’s going to cost a lot of money,” the teacher told her, an answer Alston later repeated to her mother, a single parent who piled part-time jobs on top of full-time work to support her two children. Shirley Alston promised her daughter that she would go to college, “even if I have to scrub floors on my hands and knees.”
A week later, Abe Pollin, then the owner of the Washington Bullets, and Melvin Cohen, another businessman, announced that they were adopting Seat Pleasant Elementary’s fifth-grade class. As part of the “I Have a Dream” Foundation program, the two men would pay college tuition for any of the 59 students who completed high school.
As a member of that class, Alston became known as a “Dreamer,” a status that gave her and her classmates a taste of stardom at an early age. Their perks included special buses that took them to school, luncheon meetings with Pollin and Cohen, and free tickets to sporting events and shows.
Alston graduated from Central High School and got her bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland. She stayed in contact with Pollin. And Tracy Proctor, the mentor who shepherded the “Dreamers” through school, stayed in touch with Alston after high school, asking her to speak about the program at events. “She was just an all-around ambassador for ‘I Have a Dream,’ ” he said.
By 2009, when Pollin died, Alston was an established lawyer in Prince George’s. Pollin’s family asked that she speak on behalf of the Dreamers at his memorial service at Verizon Center. As she listened to other speakers’ memories, she ruminated on what she still wanted to accomplish.
Her answer was to run for public office. The next year, she was among 10 candidates vying for three open delegate seats representing a district that includes Landover and Seat Pleasant.
Eight months after her swearing in, state prosecutors indicted Alston for trying to pay off $3,560 in wedding expenses by writing two checks from her campaign account. The checks had bounced, but Alston’s alleged crime had been using her campaign money for a personal expense.
Already, Alston had established herself as a controversial figure in Annapolis. During a debate over a proposed same-sex marriage bill, Alston infuriated proponents by opposing the legislation, even though she had initially agreed to co-sponsor it.
Her professional life was unraveling. The demands of the campaign and the State House had made it difficult to practice law. After missing a client’s court date and failing to respond to requests for documents, she ignored the Maryland bar’s demand that she refund the client $5,000.
“I completely shut down,” Alston recalled, struggling to explain. “It really upset and depressed me. I couldn’t respond.”
The state’s highest court subsequently suspended her license.
When investigators questioned her about the campaign checks she wrote to pay for the wedding expenses, Alston said that she had mistakenly picked up the wrong checkbook. She had thought she was using personal checks, not those for her campaign, to pay for a restaurant reception and table linens.
Prosecutors did not deem her explanation credible because she wrote the checks on separate days.
Never, Alston told reporters, had she intended to use her campaign account to fund personal expenses. But she acknowledged that she and her campaign treasurer had neglected deadlines for filing reports required by the State Board of Elections.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” she said. “It’s not like we’re dumb people. We just didn’t know, and we were busy.”
The investigators’ probe of her campaign spending led to a second indictment, this one targeting her use of $800 in state funds that prosecutors alleged she used to pay an employee of her law firm. Alston contended that the aide was performing government work.
Alston pleaded “no contest” in the case involving her wedding. An Anne Arundel County jury found her guilty in the case involving her law firm employee.
At her sentencing hearing, Alston was tearful as she characterized her transgressions as “careless accounting mistakes” and suggested that “there have been political motivations into what happened.”
“There was no criminal intent in anything I did,” she said. “It was a horrible mistake, and it was a mistake I will have to live with.”
Judge Paul Harris imposed a one-year suspended jail sentence and required that Alston complete 300 hours of community service. After she completed the service work, he removed the conviction from her record.
But on that day at her sentencing, the judge rejected Alston’s claim that her case was influenced by politics.
“You broke the public trust,” the judge said. “It was almost as if the moment you got sworn in as delegate, it gave you free rein to do what you wanted to do.
“It just shows,” he said, “an incredible arrogance on your part.”
Two months later, on a Monday morning in December, Alston was at home in Bowie, where she lives with her husband, Kendall Gray, who works for the county’s Office of Audits and Investigations. Here and there were assorted cartons containing photos that once hung in her law office.
Alston was on her couch, waiting for her 9-year-old daughter to come home from school and ruminating about the judge’s description of her as arrogant.
“Very hurtful. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on that more than anything,” she said. “It’s not a character trait I would associate with myself.”
As a lawyer, she said, she has always believed in the sanctity of the justice system. As someone accused of a crime, she said she now questions “whether it works for people of my race.” Her faith in the legal system, she said, “has been shattered.”
Why, she asked, was her trial held in majority-white Anne Arundel and not predominantly African American Prince George’s? She waved off the explanation that has been invoked by the prosecutor — that Annapolis, home to the State Board of Elections, is where cases involving violations of campaign finance laws are tried.
Her attorneys have publicly speculated that prosecutors brought the case against Alston to punish her for opposing the gay marriage legislation and Gov. Martin O’Malley’s plan for congressional redistricting.
Alston, in the interview, said, “I believe I have been treated differently.”
Told of Alston’s remarks, prosecutor Emmet Davitt said the initial allegation against Alston surfaced prior to her taking office. “Our decision to charge Del. Alston in both cases had nothing to do with her political positions,” he said. “We believed she had committed crimes.”
Alston is not without supporters.
Del. Jolene Ivey (D-Prince George’s), the leader of the county’s delegation in Annapolis, said: “If the truth is that she made a sloppy bookkeeping mistake, this is too big a punishment. Should she still have her seat? In some ways, yes.
“She still has the opportunity to do a lot of positive things,” Ivey said, adding that in 20 or 30 years “this will be a hiccup for her.”
For the moment, Alston is focused on restoring her reputation. Without her regular income, she has found another way to make money: She is working with Mary Kay Cosmetics, teaching people about makeup and how to run their own business.
She brightened as she described the work.
“It’s something fun,” Alston said. “And I need something fun.”