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Prince George's delegate convicted of theft, misconduct

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Tiffany Alston, a freshman delegate from Prince George's County, was convicted Tuesday morning of stealing $800 in General Assembly funds to pay an employee of her law firm.

If the guilty verdicts on counts of misdemeanor theft and misconduct in office survive her expected challenges, the Bowie Democrat could lose her seat in the Maryland legislature.

Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Paul F. Harris Jr. postponed sentencing until after a trial, scheduled for October, on separate charges that Alston raided her 2010 campaign funds to cover wedding-related expenses, pay a law firm employee and write a check to herself.

Tuesday's misdemeanor theft conviction carries a jail sentence of up to 18 months. The penalty for misconduct is not specified.

"Elected officials are entrusted with public resources, and they are not for personal use. It's the taxpayers' money," State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said after the verdict.

Calling the verdict a "devastating turn of events," Raouf Abdullah, one of Alston's lawyers, said the delegate has no plans to resign. Abdullah said he plans to challenge the verdict, contending that prosecutors failed to prove their case.

"Throughout this process, she has been resolute that she will be vindicated," Abdullah said.

Prosecutors said that Alston used the state dollars because her law firm was broke and had bounced 49 checks in 2010 before the bank closed its account. They maintained that Alston paid her employee in January 2011 with General Assembly money by claiming she was a legislative aide.

The defense contends the employee, Rayshawn Ford, worked in Alston's district office, which was in a suite of offices in Lanham that included Alston's law practice. Abdullah called Ford's statements to investigators and a grand jury "ambiguous" and said the prosecution's case was weak.

Alston showed no emotion as the verdict was read. Abdullah said his reaction was "disbelief. It was an out-of-body experience." He said Alston would have no comment.

After four days of testimony, the jury deliberated for less than four hours Monday and Tuesday before reaching a verdict. Alston did not testify.

Jurors heard Ford testify that contrary to what the prosecution maintained, she did legislative work, and that she considered Alston a friend and mentor. But prosecutors said there was no sign that Alston had a district office in January 2011.

Alston, elected in 2010, was one of the Prince George's County children who benefited from the "I Have a Dream" program co-sponsored by the late Abe Pollin, owner of Washington professional sports teams, Abdullah said.

The organization promised that if the students graduated from high school, it would pay for their college or other education. The foundation paid for Alston's undergraduate education at the University of Maryland, College Park, Abdullah said.

He did not know if the organization later paid for her law school studies. She received her law degree from the University of the District of Columbia, and is a mentor in the "Dream" program, according to her legislative biography.

Alston, 35, can remain in political office until after she is sentenced. The state Constitution provides for the suspension of a delegate convicted of certain types of crimes, including those related to elected office, but only after sentencing. It allows the governor to appoint a temporary replacement while the case is on appeal.

The November ballot includes a referendum on suspending elected officials upon a guilty finding, but it's unclear whether that could apply in Alston's case.

Abdullah reiterated the claim made before the trial: that both sets of charges against Alston were political payback, one for withdrawing support for the same-sex marriage bill she co-sponsored in 2011, and this case for opposing Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed legislative redistricting plan last fall. Jurors did not hear that claim.

"The governor appoints the state prosecutor," Abdullah said, later adding, "The state prosecutor can be subject to the pressures of the governor."

Both the governor's office and the state prosecutor have said the governor doesn't tell the state prosecutor what to do.

Jurors were not told about Alston's other criminal charges. However, they were told that Alston was already under investigation when Ford called the Office of the State Prosecutor to say she was paid in General Assembly funds. Ford stopped cooperating with prosecutors within days of making that allegation last fall, prosecutors said.

The state's Attorney Grievance Commission argued last week for the Court of Appeals to suspend her law license indefinitely for reasons unrelated to the criminal cases. She is fighting that move.

andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

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