No honor among thieves or corrupt politicians

This week, Del. Tiffany Alston ofPrince George's Countywas convicted of stealing $800 from the General Assembly to pay an aide in her private law firm. The offense is a misdemeanor, but it is directly related to her duties in office — in fact, she was also convicted of official misconduct — and as such falls under a provision of the Maryland constitution that triggers automatic suspension from the General Assembly. Nonetheless, Ms. Alston stands to be a pivotal figure in the legislature next month if Gov.Martin O'Malleycalls a special session to consider the expansion of gambling. The key issue is whether to allow a casino in Prince George's County, and as a member of that delegation (not to mention someone who has shown a flair for the dramatic), her vote could be crucial one way or the other.

How could that be?

The answer is that Ms. Alston is taking advantage of what is by now a well trodden loophole in Maryland law. The provision in the constitution calls for the suspension of officials upon conviction for a felony or misdemeanor related to their duties in office and for their removal after the appeals process is exhausted. But long standing legal opinion has held that a "conviction" occurs not with a jury's guilty verdict but with a judge's handing down of a sentence. Ms. Alston (who maintains her innocence and has vowed to appeal) is not due for sentencing until after October, when the delegate faces a separate set of charges in the alleged use of campaign contributions to pay for her wedding. For now, she says, she has no intention of resigning.

The situation is reminiscent of what happened after former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon was convicted of stealing gift cards her office collected to give to poor children. She, too, vowed to stay in office until the sentencing, and possibly beyond. The only thing that got her to resign was the prosecutor's promise that she could, in exchange, maintain her $83,000 a year pension. Something similar happened in Prince George's County, where former Councilwoman Leslie Johnson initially refused to step down after she pleaded guilty in the pay-to-play scandal centered on her husband, former Prince George's County Executive Jack Johnson. And in Anne Arundel County, former Councilman Daryl Jones sought to stay in office even as he went to federal prison for tax evasion.

When corrupt officials cling to office, it robs their constituents of honest, effective representation. It is, however, no great surprise that they seem consistently to take no one's interest into account but their own. What's needed is a way to force them to do the right thing, and, fortunately, their colleagues in the General Assembly have provided us an opportunity to do just that.

Del. Jolene Ivey, a Prince George's Democrat, spearheaded an effort during this year's legislative session to address the problem, and the result is a proposed constitutional amendment that would require an official — state or local — to be suspended upon a finding of guilt or to be removed from office upon a guilty plea to a felony or misdemeanor related to his or her performance in office. It is on the ballot for approval in November, and we hope and expect that it will receive the overwhelming support of voters.

It's an idea that not even Ms. Alston could argue with; she was a co-sponsor of the bill.

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