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Alston must go

Another Maryland politician has broken the law and is, nonetheless, trying to hold on to elected office. Del. Tiffany Alston this week agreed to a plea deal that allowed her to avoid trial on charges that she misused money from her campaign funds to pay for her wedding and resulted in a one-year suspended sentence for an earlier conviction on charges of misconduct in office related to her theft of $800 from the General Assembly to pay expenses in her private law office. In spite of that, the Prince George's County Democrat initially argued that she could continue in office, and after the General Assembly's lawyer said otherwise, she has continued to insist that she could return to the legislature after the year's sentence is up.

Amazingly, this is at least the fourth time in the last three years that something like this has happened in Maryland. Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon, after she was found guilty in the theft of gift cards meant for the poor, hung on to office for more than a month before agreeing to a deal with prosecutors that allowed her to keep her pension. Anne Arundel County Councilman Daryl Jones, convicted of tax evasion, wanted to hold onto his seat while in prison. The council ejected him on the grounds that he would not be living in his district during his incarceration, a move he threatened to fight in court. And Prince George's County Councilwoman Leslie Johnson tried to stay in office after she pleaded guilty in connection with her husband's pay-to-play schemes from his time as county executive — she, memorably, flushed a check down the toilet and stuffed wads of cash in her underwear while federal agents were knocking on the door.

There is, it seems, no honor among thieving politicians, and that risks making the public think they're all crooks.

Ms. Alston's case demands two responses. First, voters must approve a constitutional amendment on the ballot that closes the loopholes Ms. Alston and her dishonorable peers have sought to exploit. And two, if that amendment is ruled not to apply in her case, the House of Delegates needs to expel her immediately.

Article XV of the Maryland Constitution says that a state or local official who is convicted of or pleads no contest to a felony or a misdemeanor related to his or her public duties that involves moral turpitude and carries a possible jail sentence shall be suspended from office. Once that conviction is final, after judicial review and appeals, the suspension becomes permanent removal. However, Maryland case law has indicated that a "conviction" occurs only at the sentencing, not at the moment a jury hands down a guilty verdict. That's why Ms. Alston was able to stay in the General Assembly during the August special session on expanding gambling despite having been found guilty in June. (She voted no on the gambling expansion.)

Seeking to prevent that kind of thing from happening, Del. Jolene Ivey, also a Prince George's County Democrat, pushed successfully for the legislature to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that tightens the rules. It says that an official is suspended from office immediately upon a finding of guilt and automatically removed from office after a guilty plea.

Ms. Alston was a co-sponsor of the bill, but she certainly seems disinclined to live by that standard herself. She and her attorney are pushing the idea that because a judge could vacate the conviction from her record after her sentence is up, she may be able to automatically return to the legislature. The amendment would prevent such a thing because her guilty plea would have led to automatic removal, not suspension, but it is not clear whether the amendment would apply to her case.

That's why the House of Delegates should not hesitate to expel her from office. It has the power to do so regardless of the status of her criminal case. No doubt her peers don't relish the idea of taking such action against one of their own — witness how gingerly the state Senate treated Sen. Ulysses Currie over his blatant use of his public office for private gain, an offense that led merely to censure. But a politician who steals taxpayers' money has no business serving in office.

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