Lord Acton’s 1887 comment about the darker tendencies of people in positions of authority — “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” — still rings true in an amended form in Maryland.
Too many Free State politicians dishonor the trust placed in them by citizens. It’s not an avalanche of elected officials who cross the line, but enough to leave a sour taste in one’s mouth.
The latest is former Prince George’s County Del. Tiffany Alston (D-Dist. 24) of Mitchellville, who was suspended from office last week after pleading no contest to misusing campaign funds and for an earlier conviction on misconduct in office and theft charges.
She also recently lost her law license indefinitely for missing a client’s court hearing, failing to keep the client informed about the case’s status and failing to turn over documents to the client’s new attorney.
Alston had agreed to repay the client $5,000 and take a legal education course. She didn’t bother. Nor did she bother to defend herself when these complaints were lodged.
No wonder the Court of Appeals took away her law license. She disgraced the legal profession and defiantly failed to defend actions or live up to terms of the deal she struck to make amends.
But it gets worse. After Alston was elected to the House of Delegates in 2010, she used taxpayer funds to pay the salary of a law office worker, diverted $3,500 in campaign funds to pay for her wedding and took another $1,250 from her campaign as though it was her personal ATM.
For these illegal actions Alston could have gone to jail. Instead, she copped a plea, wiggled out of wearing prison garb and is trying to get reinstated both as a lawyer and as a state delegate.
That would be pouring further disgrace upon the legal and legislative professions.
No wonder the trial judge accused Alston of showing “incredible arrogance.”
Almost from the day she was sworn in as a delegate, Alston displayed poor judgment and bad manners. She’s most famous for signing on as a co-sponsor of the same-sex marriage bill in 2011, reversing herself under pressure from local ministers and then skipping out on a crucial committee voting session. This year she repeated her wavering, finally seeking to extort concessions on other issues in exchange for voting “yes.”
What a profile in courage.
Alston isn’t the only official in Maryland to display dishonorable tendencies.
Prince George’s state Sen. Ulysses Currie (D-Dist. 25) of District Heights still serves on the key budget and tax panel even after he was censured in February for soliciting nearly a quarter-million dollars from a supermarket chain while he used his position to win favorable government decisions for the company. At the time of his nefarious actions, he chaired that budget panel.
His punishment: a lost chairmanship and an abject apology on the Senate floor — an embarrassing but mild reprimand since he retains his salary and all the perks of office. He also beat federal charges against him by presenting a “too dumb to know better” defense.
Former state Sen. Tommy Bromwell of Baltimore County, while chairman of another finance committee, attempted to strong-arm government agencies into selecting a contractor who was making $200,000 in indirect payoffs to Bromwell. He and his wife went to prison in 2007.
Three members of the prominent Mitchell family of Baltimore disgraced the Maryland legislature and brought shame to an earlier generation that led the civil rights crusade in both the state and nation.
Clarence Mitchell III, a long-serving state senator who died last week, went to prison in 1987 for collecting $50,000 to halt a federal probe of a defense contractor, Wedtech. His brother, Michael, who also served in the state Senate, went to prison in that scam and was disbarred for bilking a 3-year-old fatherless child out of a $77,000 life insurance payment.
Clarence Mitchell IV, now a right-wing radio talk show host in Baltimore, was reprimanded by a legislative ethics committee in 2002 for taking an unreported $10,000 loan from three business people and then lobbying for their causes as a state senator.
Another state senator from Baltimore, Larry Young, was expelled in 1998 — the first time in Maryland Senate history — for soliciting payments from health companies while he chaired a health subcommittee and for receiving gifts, including a Lincoln Town Car.
The central theme here is arrogance. These individuals thought their elective office placed them above the law. After all, they wrote the law as state legislators.
The longer they served the more brazen they became. Legislators don’t receive princely sums so they decided to leverage their office for personal gain.
Alston’s case is different. She came to Annapolis on Day One full of brazen arrogance. Not that she had any reason for that attitude: She only won her seat by 310 votes, and she was already under investigation by the Attorney Grievance Commission.
Her two-year performance in Annapolis was abysmal. Her forced ouster is a victory for District 24 constituents — and another reminder that the power of elective office can be terribly abused and mishandled by some of those elected to represent the people.
Barry Rascovar is a political columnist and a communications consultant. He can be reached at email@example.com.