Del. Tiffany T. Alston (D-Dist. 24) of Mitchellville is suspended from office without pay or benefits after reaching a plea deal earlier this week that included a suspended sentence of one year in prison.
Alston’s status as a lawmaker had been left unclear Tuesday after she pleaded no contest to a charge that she misused money from her campaign account and was given the suspended sentence for an earlier conviction for misconduct in office.
But prosecutors believed she was automatically suspended from office when her sentence was declared; Alston and her lawyers said she wasn’t because the matter was still under judicial review.
In a letter, dated Wednesday, to House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Dist. 30) of Annapolis, Dan Friedman, counsel to the General Assembly in the Office of the Attorney General, agreed with prosecutors.
The state constitution calls for any elected official who is convicted of — or pleads guilty or no contest to — a felony or “a misdemeanor related to his public duties and responsibilities and involves moral turpitude for which the penalty may be incarceration” to be automatically suspended from office. But that provision doesn’t take effect until the conviction becomes final, usually at sentencing.
Alston’s misconduct was “a qualifying crime under this provision” and became final Tuesday, Friedman wrote. “At the moment that sentence was pronounced, the constitutional provision was triggered and Delegate Alston was suspended from office,” he wrote.
A spokeswoman for Busch said the speaker would follow the advice of the attorney general’s office.
In addition to the suspended sentence, Alston was given three years’ probation, 300 hours of community service and ordered to pay $800 in restitution to the General Assembly. She was found guilty in June on charges that she had used General Assembly money to pay a clerk at her law firm.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Paul Harris ruled Tuesday that once Alston meets the conditions of her sentence she can request probation before judgment, which could result in her conviction being expunged.
Alston’s attorney, Raouf M. Abdullah, said that Friedman’s opinion was premature because Alston’s case was not fully resolved and the guilty verdict would likely be stricken. “[This] denies her constituents their choice of representative,” he said.
Alston’s legal team will request that the attorney general’s office reconsider the opinion, and may go back to court to seek an injunction, Abdullah said.
Four other charges relating to allegations that she used money from her campaign account to pay for her wedding, pay a clerk at her law firm and draw $1,250 in cash for unspecified purposes were dropped as part of the agreement between Alston and the office of State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt.
Before Harris finalized the sentence Tuesday, the 35-year-old delegate, who was elected in 2010, offered a tearful statement that was both apologetic and defensive. She said that “careless accounting mistakes” were to blame for the errors.
“There was no malicious intent on my part,” Alston said, adding that she believed prosecutors knew there was no criminal intent behind her actions. She also said that she had loaned her campaign account $8,000 of her own money.
Harris offered a stern rebuke, arguing that Alston’s actions violated the public trust. “It just shows an incredible arrogance on your part,” he told her.
Davitt told reporters Tuesday that he was pleased with the outcome of both cases, and said that the facts that were read into the record as part of the plea proved that the charges against Alston were not politically motivated. The inappropriate use of campaign money had been brought to his office’s attention before Alston was even sworn in as a delegate, he said.
Alston’s attorneys had argued earlier this year that the charges were punishment for a vote against same-sex marriage in 2011 and her criticism of a redistricting plan introduced by Gov. Martin O’Malley.
The Democratic Central Committee has 30 days from Tuesday to suggest potential replacements for Alston, and O’Malley then has 15 days to select from that list.