‘Maryland is very corrupt’: Tawanna Gaines’ guilty plea adds to state’s history of ethics problems in politics
By Elliott Davis
Capital News Service|
Oct 17, 2019 | 6:06 PM
Former Del. Tawanna Gaines, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, pleaded guilty Thursday to wire fraud, adding to an already long list of Maryland lawmakers — largely Democrats — who have been convicted, charged or reprimanded for corruption or other ethical issues in recent years.
Gaines, who had represented District 22 since 2001, spent campaign money on personal expenses including fast food, hair styling, dental work, a cover for her swimming pool and an Amazon Prime membership, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Windom said.
The plea adds her to the growing list of politicians in the state who have either committed crimes or ethical violations.
Oguzhan Dincer, associate professor and director of the Institute for Corruption Studies at Illinois State University, told Capital News Service that when it comes to “legal corruption” — unethical acts without actual criminality — “Maryland is very corrupt” and it is “quite alarming.”
The campaign treasurer listed on Gaines’ candidate committee registration page is Anitra Trona Gaines Edmond. An archived image from TawannaGaines.org shows a photo of the then-delegate with a woman named Anitra Edmond, with a caption saying that she is Gaines’ daughter. Efforts to reach Edmond via email and social media were not returned.
Capital News Service was unable to reach Gaines herself — a phone number listed on her campaign finance page was disconnected and a Hotmail email address bounced back. An attorney mentioned for Gaines in media reports did not respond to requests for comment. The former delegate’s arraignment is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday at the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.
Maryland House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, a Democrat from Baltimore County, released a statement earlier this week saying that Gaines had resigned Friday.
“As elected officials, we have an obligation to uphold the public trust, both in office and in our campaigns,” Jones said in the statement. “We cannot sacrifice that trust for personal gain for ourselves or our family members.”
Alexandra Hughes, Jones’ chief of staff, told Capital News Service via email that she isn’t aware of specific plans for ethics bills in the 2020 Maryland legislative session, pointing to the “comprehensive” ethics reform legislation passed in 2017. “Obviously, there are laws on the books to prevent what Delegate Gaines did — which is how she was charged,” Hughes added.
Jake Weissmann, chief of staff for Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Democrat from Prince George’s, Charles and Calvert, declined to comment via email. Arinze Ifekauche, spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party, also declined to comment via email, deferring to Jones’ statement. The Maryland Republican Party did not respond to requests for comment.
Joanne Antoine, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, told Capital News Service that Gaines’ resignation “sends a message” that these types of actions “won’t be accepted.”
“There’s no question that the public’s trust was lost when an elected official abuses their power,” Antoine said.
Sen. Paul Pinsky, a Democrat from Prince George’s, said he was “taken aback” when the news broke about his fellow District 22 lawmaker. When he found out that it had to do with fundraising, Pinsky said, “I was even more shocked, because that’s never been a high priority of hers.”
Asked about possible legislation to combat corruption during the next session in response to the charges against Gaines, the state senator said, “Personally, I’d like to get private funding out of elections totally,” but added that he doesn’t “know what the details are” or “if it’s something that’s correctable.”
This instance of public corruption in the General Assembly is nothing new. Gaines is the third Democratic delegate from Prince George’s County alone to be charged or convicted since 2018.
Lawmakers have also been officially reprimanded in the General Assembly for ethical issues in recent years.
Delegate Jay Jalisi, a Democrat from Baltimore County, was reprimanded by the legislature earlier this year for what an ethics report referred to as an “ongoing pattern of bullying and abusive workplace behavior.” Delegate Mary Ann Lisanti, a Democrat from Harford, was censured this year in connection with allegations that she used a racial slur to describe an area of Prince George’s County.
Dincer studies corruption across the country through an annual survey. Dincer told Capital News Service that the survey is sent to approximately 1,000 political reporters — with an average response rate of about 30% — asking them to rate their state’s branches of government on a scale of 1 to 5 for both illegal corruption and legal corruption, the latter of which he described as when a “politician forgets about working for the greater good.”
Dincer said his findings indicate that when it comes to illegal corruption like bribery and fraud, Maryland is “kind of in the middle of the road” among other states. When it comes to legal corruption, however, he said the state is “very corrupt.” He cautioned that in terms of illegal corruption, “I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Maryland is really getting bad” when compared with other states.
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Referring to the state’s “strict” campaign finance laws, Joanne Antoine of Common Cause said that when comparing Maryland with other states in terms of corruption, “I wouldn’t say it’s an outlier.”
Matthew Crenson, professor emeritus at Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Political Science, told Capital News Service that he considers Maryland to be more corrupt than other states, referring to “a lot of episodes of corruption … going back to the 1970s, not just in the state legislature.” He added that bribery is a “common thread that seems to run through a lot of these cases.”
Other Maryland officials with ties to corruption include former Vice President and Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew; former Gov. Marvin Mandel; former Delegate Tiffany Alston, a Democrat from Prince George’s; former state Sen. Tommie Broadwater Jr., former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon; and former Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson.
Annapolis lobbyists Bruce Bereano and Gerard Evans returned to their careers after serving prison time, according to Maryland Matters. Former state Sen. Ulysses Currie, a Democrat from Prince George’s, was acquitted of all corruption charges against him in 2011, according to The Washington Post.
Former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, a Democrat, has been linked to self-dealing in the sale of children’s books; she has not been charged with any crime.