Del. Alston found guilty of two charges -- Gazette.Net


This story was updated at 2:15 p.m. June 12.

Del. Tiffany T. Alston was found guilty of two criminal charges — misdemeanor theft and misconduct in office — by an Anne Arundel County Circuit Court jury Tuesday morning.

After deliberating for about four hours over two days, the jury announced at about 9:50 a.m. that it had reached a verdict.

Alston, an attorney by trade, listened quietly as the judge discussed a possible date for sentencing, which he said he was inclined to postpone until after a second trial in October on additional charges that she misused funds from her campaign account.

Prosecutors had alleged that Alston (D-Dist. 24) of Mitchellville placed an employee of her Lanham-based law practice on the state payroll as a legislative clerk in January 2011, but that the employee, Rayshawn Ford, continued to work for the law firm and drew $800 in pay before resigning later that month.

Prosecutors initially indicted Alston in September on charges that she had taken money from her election campaign for personal expenses, including a $1,250 cash withdrawal, $660 that went to pay a law firm employee and about $3,600 for wedding expenses. The checks for the wedding costs were returned for insufficient funds, according to prosecutors.

Alston did not comment after Tuesday’s verdict, but her attorney, Raouf Abdullah, said the verdict would be challenged, including a possible appeal.

Abdullah said Alston, a first-term delegate, is not going to step down from her General Assembly seat because her legal rights had not been exhausted.

“This is not resolved; this is not a settled matter,” Abdullah said.

The state constitution stipulates that public officials convicted of crimes, including misdemeanors, that relate to “public duties and responsibilities and involves moral turpitude” be suspended from office without pay or benefits.

A bill passed by the General Assembly this year would modify the constitution so officials can be removed when found guilty, but it must be approved by voters before going into effect.

State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said he was pleased with the verdict. “Elected officials are entrusted with public resources, and they’re not for personal use,” he said. “We’ll continue to investigate and prosecute, where merited, these types of allegations.”

In her closing argument Monday in the Annapolis courtroom, Shelly Glenn, senior assistant state prosecutor, told the jury, “This is really a very easy case. They’re common-sense charges.”

During the course of the five-day trial, prosecutors argued that Alston’s law firm was broke and could not pay Ford’s salary, so Alston used state funds to pay her. The question was whether Ford was working for Alston the delegate or for Alston the lawyer, Glenn said.

The defense argued that Ford worked for the politician, but in her district office, which was located at the law firm. Prosecutors argued that Ford worked for the lawyer, and that there was no evidence Alston had established a district office at the time.

Ford herself testified that she worked in the district office, Abdullah said in his closing statement. The prosecution’s case depended entirely on the testimony of two investigators from the state prosecutor’s office who said Ford had told them otherwise, he said.

“This case is based on hearsay,” Abdullah said.

Lawmakers frequently have offices in their home districts, but many simply use their home addresses as their district offices, according to the Department of Legislative Services.

The prosecution sought to discredit the defense by implying that several of their witnesses, including Alston’s chief of staff, had a financial incentive to protect the delegate because they would lose their jobs if she were convicted. Glenn also took aim at the testimony of a defense witness who said she’d seen Ford sending out mail on Alston’s General Assembly letterhead.

Alston would not have received her official letterhead before Ford quit, Glenn said.

No official stationery did not mean there was no district office, Abdullah countered.

Prior to the closing arguments, Judge Paul Harris dismissed two jurors after concerns were raised that they might have become prejudiced against the testimony of a defense witness.

Last week, a juror observed a witness talking briefly with Alston’s husband in the gallery of the courtroom and wrote a note to the judge calling the incident to his attention, Harris said.

The conversation was deemed to be innocuous, but as a precaution, the juror — as well as the one sitting next to her, with whom she’d briefly discussed the matter — were replaced with alternates, said J. Wyndal Gordon, an attorney for Alston.

With the October trial, Alston faces a total of seven counts, including one count of felony theft that could bring up to 10 years in jail.