Former state Del. Tawanna P. Gaines was sentenced Friday to six months in federal prison, plus another two months of home detention, after admitting to stealing about $22,000 in campaign funds.
Several prominent Marylanders, including Maryland Court of Appeals Judge Michele D. Hotten, appeared in federal court in Greenbelt Friday to testify to Gaines’ character, calling her a selfless and dedicated public official. But U.S. District Court Judge Theodore D. Chuang, who was presided over the case, said Gaines had committed serious offenses that threatened to undermine democracy.
“Public corruption is evil and cannot be tolerated in a democratic society,” he said.
Gaines, a 19-year veteran of the House of Delegates, stepped down in October, and pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud several days later. She was vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee and was supposed to take over the Capital Budget subcommittee as well. She formerly served as mayor of Berwyn Heights.
The 67-year-old Prince George’s County Democrat was charged with withdrawing campaign friends from an ATM and a PayPal account totaling about $22,000. In a separate case, her daughter, Anitra Edmond, who had served as Gaines’ campaign treasurer, pleaded guilty to stealing about $35,000 from the campaign fund. Her sentencing is scheduled for next month.
During Friday’s sentencing hearing, Hotten, former state Sen. Gloria G Lawlah (D-Prince George’s), former Department of Natural Resources secretary John R. Griffin, former House Appropriations Committee chairman Norman H. Conway (D-Lower Shore) and former Prince George’s Hospital Center president John A. O’Brien, were among those who called Gaines a stellar public servant who was uniquely responsive to her constituents and deserved leniency.
“This is without equivocation the best legislator, the most remarkable person, I ever had the pleasure of working with,” said Griffin, who is also a former executive of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission and served as chief of staff to former Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D).
Added Hotten: “You cannot measure a person by a particular or one single incident.”
Other prominent Marylanders, including former Harford County executive Eileen Rehrmann (D) and State House lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano, sat in the courtroom in support of Gaines. In late December, several more, including House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones (D-Baltimore County), wrote letters testifying to Gaines’ high character. The letters were first reported Thursday by The Daily Record.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas P. Windom argued that while there was no denying Gaines’ contribution to the state and her community, she could not be excused for knowingly breaking the law over a period of at least 3 1/2 half years. And, he said, Gaines’ crimes were committed during a time when “Annapolis was on fire,” as news of other Prince George’s lawmakers’ arrests on corruption charges were prominently in the news.
“There are 203 separate incidents here where the defendant unlawfully withdrew money,” Windom said. “…The defendant does not lead an extravagant lifestyle. There was no need for the defendant to do this.”
The federal government sought an eight-month prison sentence for Gaines, a relatively short stint according to federal penal guidelines.
But William C. Brennan Jr., Gaines’ attorney, suggested that given her long record of service, the ex-lawmaker should be confined only to home detention.
“Ms. Gaines was a dedicated public servant who did not seek the limelight and did not sell her vote,” Brennan said.
Chuang then pressed both attorneys for several minutes for details about the extent of Gaines’ financial crimes. What was her culpability relative to her daughter’s? he wondered. And he also asked what percentage of the money taken from the PayPal account and the campaign fund was originally hers and not just the product of campaign contributions.
Windom produced a document compiled by the FBI showing that 99% of the money in the campaign fund and PayPal account came from donors rather than Gaines’ personal funds. Brandon said he could not verify the numbers but he did not dispute that the overwhelming percentage of money in the account was from donations.
Offered an opportunity to make a statement, Gaines addressed Chuang for less than a minute, apologizing and saying, “I took my oath very seriously, but I fell short.”
When it came time to mete out punishment after almost 90 minutes of testimony and discussion, Chuang said he was taking into account Gaines’ public record and the respect she engendered across the state. He also noted that the ex-lawmaker had major financial responsibilities at home but never sold her vote or sought to enrich herself.
But Chuang said Gaines’ crimes could not be ignored, especially at a time when “trust in our public officials is very low, even dangerously low.”
In addition to the six months Gaines must spend in a minimum-security federal prison, the judge sentenced Gaines to three years’ supervised probation, starting with two months of home detention. He also ordered her to pay $22,000 in retribution to her campaign fund, from which the funds were stolen.
While he did not say which facility Gaines would be assigned to, Chuang pledged to make it as close to her Berwyn Heights home as practical. Her prison sentence is tentatively scheduled to begin on Feb. 24, and she remains free until then.
Asked by reporters after the sentencing if she had any comment, Gaines first said she would let her statement in the courtroom stand. But then Gaines said she hoped the stain on her record wouldn’t be used against her former colleagues in Annapolis.
“I don’t like being used as an example, unless it’s for something good,” she said.
Gaines also suggested that her legal troubles stemmed from bad record-keeping rather than a concentrated effort to steal money. She offered some advice to future political candidates.
“Keep good records,” she said. “Report, report, report.”