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Government & Politics Justice

Senior Md. Lawmaker Resigns, Faces Wire Fraud Charge

Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Prince George’s) has resigned.

A senior member of the House of Delegates who resigned abruptly Friday faces a federal corruption charge for allegedly pocketing more than $22,000 in campaign contributions.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Maryland announced Monday afternoon that Del. Tawanna P. Gaines (D-Prince George’s), the vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee and newly installed chairwoman of its powerful Capital Budget Committee, faces one wire fraud charge for siphoning at least $22,000 from her campaign fund over a three-year period, from January 2015 to April 2018.

The charging document from U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur alleges that the 18-year lawmaker operated a PayPal account for her campaign committee that only she knew about, enabling her to pocket contributions that were made to her committee through that payment method. Gaines did not disclose the existence of the PayPal account or its transactions on state campaign finance forms, the complaint alleges.

Maryland election law states that only a campaign treasurer can collect and disburse a candidate’s campaign funds.

An initial appearance and arraignment for Gaines is scheduled for Oct. 17 at 11 a.m. before U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang, in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt. If convicted, Gaines faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison for wire fraud.

Gaines did not respond to telephone and email messages from Maryland Matters on Monday. She has hired William C. Brennan Jr., a well-known defense attorney in Greenbelt.

Gaines submitted her resignation to House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County) on Friday, though there was no public announcement until Monday.

The news caught people who work closely with Gaines completely off-guard.

“It came as a shock to me – and fast,” said state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who represents the 22nd District, which covers Greenbelt, Riverdale and sections of Hyattsville and College Park, with Gaines.

Jones’ office released a terse statement suggesting that Gaines had resigned due to some sort of ethical lapse, but offered no details.

“On Friday, I accepted the resignation of Delegate Tawanna P. Gaines,” Jones said in the statement. “Delegate Gaines has been a dedicated member of the Maryland House of Delegates for sixteen years.

“As elected officials, we have an obligation to uphold the public trust, both in office and in our campaigns. We cannot sacrifice that trust for personal gain for ourselves or our family members. I wish Delegate Gaines the best during this challenging time.”

Gaines, 67, has run afoul of state authorities in the past due to campaign finance violations. Her campaign committee has been audited several times by the Maryland State Board of Elections, with referrals to the Office of the State Prosecutor for failing to file accurate or timely campaign finance reports.

Gaines has 13 campaign violations since 2006, with a total of $2,160 in fines assessed. She has a balance of $1,000 in unpaid fines, according to state records. In July, her committee was given notice that it needed to file amended reports for two reporting periods in 2018.

Pinsky said that in the years he has worked with Gaines, he has been struck by her relative disinterest in fundraising, and she has usually been the weakest fundraiser among the District 22 incumbents, he said. Gaines reported $6,000 in her campaign account in mid-January, after raising just $1,000 the previous year.

Gaines, a former mayor of Berwyn Heights, was appointed to the legislature in 2001 to replace then-Del. Richard A. Palumbo (D), who resigned to take a judgeship. She has been reelected five times since and has risen through the ranks in the House, becoming vice chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee in 2015. Just last month, Jones named Gaines to lead the Capital Budget Committee.

Gaines has been personally close to Jones. When Jones launched what was then seen as a longshot bid to become speaker following the death of previous speaker Michael E. Busch (D) in April, Gaines was one of her most vocal supporters. Jones eventually withdrew from the three-way race for speaker, but then emerged as the compromise choice when the Democratic Caucus deadlocked over the two other candidates, House Appropriations Chairwoman Maggie L. McIntosh (D-Baltimore City) and Economic Matters Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s).

In 2015, Gaines was the recipient of the Casper R. Taylor Jr. Founder’s Award, which is presented to a sitting member of the House for “steadfast commitment to public service and the integrity of the House of Delegates.”

“She’s been a trusted friend and a straight shooter and a hard worker,” Pinsky said in an interview. “I’ve always been pleased to have her on the [District 22] team.”

With Gaines’ resignation, Jones will have to fill her slot as vice chairwoman of Appropriations and as head of the Capital Budget Committee (a slot Jones held until becoming speaker). With a white chairwoman from Baltimore – McIntosh – it’s conceivable that Jones will seek a person of color, possibly from the Washington, D.C., suburbs, to serve as vice chair. Four other Prince Georgians currently serve on Appropriations: Dels. Benjamin Barnes, Michael A. Jackson, Susie Proctor, and Geraldine Valentino-Smith. All are Democrats.

Alexandra M. Hughes, Jones’ chief of staff, said Monday that no announcements about replacements are imminent.

“I’m very sad. I’m saddened about her resignation,” McIntosh said in an interview, noting that she wasn’t privy to all the details that prompted it. “…She was a great vice chair.”

In addition to working together in committee leadership, McIntosh and Gaines also served on the Chesapeake Bay Commission together. Gaines has been the chairwoman of that regional body for the past few years.

The Prince George’s County Democratic Central Committee will recommend a replacement for Gaines’ House seat to Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), who will have the final say. Speculation for possible appointees centers on Nicole A. Williams, an attorney and former member of the central committee who ran unsuccessfully for the House in the 2018 Democratic primary; Hyattsville Mayor Candace Hollingsworth; Greenbelt Mayor Emmet V. Jordan, a member of the central committee; Ashanti Martinez, an aide to Prince George’s County Councilman Thomas Dernoga (D), who also ran for the seat in 2018; and Rushern L. Baker IV, an artist and community activist who sought a House seat in 2014 and is the son of former Prince George’s county executive Rushern L. Baker III (D).

The elder Baker represented District 22 in the legislature from 1995 to 2003.

Former Del. Justin Ross, who served from 2003 to 2012, has also been mentioned as a possible placement. But he’s a registered lobbyist in Annapolis and a powerbroker in the Prince George’s County economic development world and is unlikely to want to return to the legislature.

Greenbelt City Councilman Colin Byrd, whose name has been mentioned in connection with the vacancy, told Maryland Matters he would not apply.

Danielle E. Gaines contributed to this report.  She is not related to Del. Tawanna P. Gaines.

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Senior Md. Lawmaker Resigns, Faces Wire Fraud Charge