Four years ago, Tawanna P. Gaines received the Casper R. Taylor Jr. Founder’s Award, an honor given each year to sitting members of the House Delegates in recognition of their integrity and dedication to public service.
The award is named for a former House Speaker.
On Thursday, inside U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, Gaines pleaded guilty to a single count of wire fraud, acknowledging that over a period of several years she “knowingly and willingly” violated state law by treating a political campaign account as her own personal slush fund.
In all, federal prosecutors told Judge Theodore D. Chuang, the Prince George’s Democrat used $22,565 in contributions to the Friends of Tawanna P. Gaines campaign account not as they were intended — to help her win elections — but on herself.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Windom told the judge that Gaines used the funds to purchase fast food, dental work, hair appointments, a cover for her swimming pool, an Amazon Prime membership and more. In addition, she transferred campaign funds to her personal bank account and withdrew cash from the campaign account, also in violation of the law, he said.
By accepting a plea deal rather than stand trial, Gaines and her high-profile attorney, William C. Brennan, are hoping for leniency when she is sentenced.
Wire fraud carries a possible sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, prosecutors said. But under U.S. sentencing guidelines, Gaines faces between 8 and 14 months behind bars.
Sentencing has been set for Jan. 3, 2020.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse after the 40-minute hearing, U.S. Attorney Robert K. Hur said Gaines had a special obligation to obey the law and act with integrity.
“Today Ms. Tawanna Gaines admitted that she betrayed the public trust and broke the law by stealing money from her campaign account and using those funds for her personal expenses,” he said. “Our public officials are entrusted to make decisions in the best interests of the people who elected them into office, and not to use their positions of authority to line their own pockets.”
In a brief statement to reporters, Gaines said she takes “full responsibility for what I’ve done.”
“I don’t want any of you to judge the Maryland General Assembly by that,” she added. “There are honorable people working there. I want to apologize to them for putting myself in this position.”
Gaines’ political carrier began in 1998 when she was elected to the Town Council of Berwyn Heights. In 2000, she became mayor.
She was appointed to the General Assembly, representing District 22, in 2001. She won re-election in 2002, and over time rose to become vice-chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and assistant majority leader.
Her Oct. 4 resignation — and the subsequent news that she stole campaign funds — came as a shock to many of her colleagues and supporters.
Gaines joins a long line of Prince George’s politicians to run afoul of the law, most notably former County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) and his wife, both of whom spent time behind bars following fraud convictions.
Several of Gaines’ relatives attended the arraignment hearing, sitting behind her in the courtroom. They watched quietly as Gaines spoke to the judge and left the courthouse without speaking to reporters.
During the hearing, Chaung asked the former legislator a long series of questions regarding her conduct and plea. She answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” Placed on the defense table before her was a large computer screen with a complex grid. It read “Sentencing table (in months of imprisonment)” across the top.
Gaines appeared to look at the screen frequently, then would turn away.
At one point Chuang noted that a guilty plea “may deprive you of valuable civil rights, such as the right to vote, the right to serve on a jury, the right to hold public office and the right to own a firearm. Do you understand that?”
“Yes,” she said softly.
Prosecutors would not disclose how they became aware of Gaines’ misconduct.
“Part of what happens when you follow the facts wherever they might lead is they sometimes might lead in unexpected directions,” Hur said. “I’m not at liberty at this point to get into the specifics of this investigation.”
Gaines was released on her own recognizance pending sentencing.
Asked by a reporter if she was surprised to end up a convicted felon, Gaines said, “absolutely, absolutely.”