In just 18 months as a member of the Maryland General Assembly, Del. Tiffany Alston of Prince George’s County has stirred more controversy than some do in a long legislative career.
“There was gay marriage, redistricting, medical marijuana and the Public Defender’s Act, though I’m not sure that was considered a major controversy,” Alston said. “There was the Budget Reconciliation Act and the tax increases.”
She paused, “And now this.”
The situation to which she referred was her June 12 conviction in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court on one count of theft under $1,000 and one count of misconduct while in office. According to prosecutors, Alston used $800 in General Assembly funds to pay a woman who worked in her Lanham law office. After five days of testimony, a jury deliberated less than four hours before finding her guilty. The theft charge carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and the misconduct, a common law misdeameanor, carries a maximum of 10 years.
Alston talked to The AFRO in her first in-depth interview since she was charged last summer because she wanted her constituents to hear her side of the story.
Alston, 35, of Mitchellville, is also scheduled to be tried in October for violating election law for allegedly using $3,560 from her campaign to pay for her December 2010 wedding, illegally paying an employee from the campaign funds and writing a check to herself for $1,200 from her campaign coffers. She faces more than 15 years in prison, being removed from office and disbarred. Sentencing was delayed in theft case until after the October trial.
Under Maryland law, once an elected official has been sentenced for criminal conduct, they are automatically suspended without pay, and the governor selects a temporary replacement. If guilty convictions are upheld on appeal, they are automatically removed from office, a state legal official said. Alston, a Democrat, co-sponsored legislation that is currently pending to allow removal from office after conviction, officials said.
Alston denies any criminal misconduct. Her attorneys said this week that they are planning to request a new trial and may appeal the conviction.
In the upcoming trial, she said, “I am hopeful that the truth comes out.”
Alston said she loaned her campaign $8,000. She denies using any of the funds for her wedding, held at College Park’s Memorial Chapel. The wedding, and her reception at the Olde Towne Inn in Upper Marlboro, cost less than $10,000, she said. The problem occurred, she said, when she inadvertently wrote checks to two wedding vendors from the campaign account.
“The reason I wrote [them] was not because it was my own money but because of a mistake,” she said. “I wrote checks from the campaign checkbook when I thought it was the one for my personal account. They were both the cheapy checks in a blue cover.”
The staffer, Rayshawn Ford, whom she is accused of paying from campaign funds and a General Assembly account, was paid for doing “legitimate work” in Alston’s district office, she said. She moved her law firm to her district office shortly after she was elected, Alston said.
“She testified under oath that she was responsible for my [legislative] calendar,” Alston said. “She also testified about all the work she did for my campaign. My accountant testified that Rayshawn did legitimate work for the campaign.”
Alston’s defense attorney Raouf Abdullah of Upper Marlboro said she the “scrutiny” of Alston resulted is linked to controversial legislative stands.
She initially supported same sex marriage legislation in the 2011 session but later reversed her stand. The bill died. This year she cast of the deciding votes for the measure, which passed.
Last year, she criticized the redistricting map of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), testifying against it at a public hearing. She also participated in a walkout with several other members of Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus who protested because they believed the map diluted the state’s black voting strength, she said.
This year, Alston supported a bill for medical marijuana that O’Malley opposed. She admits criticizing the administration for failing to provide funding to public defenders to represent suspects at bond hearings.
Alston said she regrets loaning the campaign money. “It’s in the campaign finance reports that it was donated by me, but they are claiming that I misused it,” she said.
Married and the mother of a 9-year-old daughter, she said she is saddened that people believe she would swindle her constituents.
“I’m so shocked by the whole thing that honestly I don’t know what I’m feeling,” she said. “My life has certainly been turned upside down. I regret putting my constituents and my clients in a position where my representation can be questioned. As a lawyer, I’m trained to put them first, to advocate for others before yourself. It hurts to think that anyone would think that I’m putting myself above the people I represent.”