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Political corruption in Maryland isn’t just a family affair

Former Delegate Tawanna Gaines pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud last year.
Former Delegate Tawanna Gaines pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud last year. (The Washington Post)

Friday’s sentencing of a former Prince George’s County delegate to six months in federal prison is a stark reminder of how easily elected officials can go astray. Tawanna Gaines pleaded guilty three months ago to a wire fraud charge stemming from her spending more than $22,000 in campaign money on personal expenses ranging from an Amazon Prime membership to a cover on her swimming pool. The 67-year-old Democrat had served in the Maryland House of Delegates since 2001. She was no novice at the rules. She knew better. But she is also not the first to go down this path.

Next month, the other half of the Gaines case will likely face a similar resolution. That’s because the former delegate did not act alone. She was assisted by her campaign treasurer, Anitra Edmond, who also happens to be her daughter. Ms. Edmond pleaded guilty to fraudulently using campaign funds for her own needs as well. Her sentencing will come next month.

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It’s a sad state of affairs, particularly given the flurry of public corruption cases Maryland has endured in the last year alone. They range from the “Healthy Holly” scandal of former Mayor Catherine Pugh (that actually had roots in her time in the state Senate) to former Baltimore Del. Cheryl Glenn who was last month charged with bribery and wire fraud. Prosecutors claim Ms. Glenn took more than $33,000 — in packets of cash — in return for General Assembly votes. Her first appearance in court is expected later this month. And then there was former state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks who was sentenced in 2018 to more than three years in prison on a bribery charge.

Recently, House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones revealed that she plans to introduce legislation in the upcoming General Assembly session that begins this Wednesday to ban family members from serving as campaign treasurers. The proposal is aimed directly at the Tawanna Gaines/Anitra Edmond case. The rationale is this: Family members are more apt to accept and/or cover up wrongdoing by a relative than an employee, volunteer or even friend might choose to do. This is the “keep it in the family” philosophy that long guided organized crime.

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Banning relatives from serving as campaign treasurers is not a bad idea. Nepotism is not exactly a new circumstance in the State House. Nor in local government. Nor in the White House. Elected leaders like the loyalty (and perhaps the financial rewards) of hiring a loved one (or a loved one’s loved one) for jobs ranging from administrative assistant to liquor board appointee. Sometimes, politics are looked upon as a family business. They aren’t looking for expertise and campaign finance compliance skills so much as blind loyalty. It would be nice to see less of that. At the very least, it would suggest a new leaf was being turned over within the state legislature.

But it’s also quite a small step. One assumes a delegate or senator interested in breaking the law can find a co-conspirator at venues other than family reunions. What else might lawmakers do to reduce criminal behavior in their ranks? They can start with public financing of political campaigns so legislators are less beholden to special interests. One reason legislators face financial temptation is that they spend so much time raising campaign funds from deep-pocketed special interests. In the last election cycle, delegates raised more than $125,000 each on average. Meanwhile, it might also be wise to raise salaries to reduce temptation. That might not be especially popular with voters but at slightly over $50,000 per year, delegates are earning less than one-third the governor’s pay and about $30,000 less than Maryland’s average household income.

Still, the most fundamental step would be to make it easier for everyone to monitor what their elected officials are doing. The General Assembly has taken some modest steps in this direction in recent years but there is more work to be done. Lawmakers have, for example, considered and rejected proposals to require candidates to produce bank statements or to more readily identify contributors who give through limited liability corporations. Increasing disclosure and transparency is almost never a bad idea. This is a good time to move further in that direction — and perhaps send fewer delegates and senators (as well as their offspring) to federal prison.

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