By: Elliot Davis, Captial News Service
GREENBELT, Maryland — Former Maryland Delegate Tawanna Gaines, D-Prince George’s, pleaded guilty Thursday to a federal wire fraud charge in the U.S. District Court in Greenbelt, after prosecutors say she used an undisclosed PayPal account to defraud campaign contributors.
Gaines, 67, was charged earlier this month with using the account to accept donations to her campaign finance committee, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Maryland. Those funds were not recorded on her campaign finance reports.
Federal prosecutors say Gaines, who had represented District 22 — which includes cities like Greenbelt and Hyattsville — since 2001, defrauded her campaign and its contributors of approximately $22,000 over a period of at least three years.
As part of the plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Gaines agreed to return the approximately $22,000 to “pay back victims” of the wire fraud, Judge Theodore Chuang said in court Thursday. The prosecutors and defense also agreed to a recommended federal sentencing guideline of 8-14 months in prison. Gaines is eligible for a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison, according to a news release.
Chuang cautioned, however, that he “may or may not agree” with the guidelines when it comes to final sentencing. Gaines’ sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 3 at 10 a.m.
Sitting next to her attorney, William Brennan Jr., Gaines answered a number of questions from Chuang affirmatively in court.
When asked by Chuang if she “did the things the government says” she did, Gaines responded, “Yes.” Multiple family members sat in the pews behind her.
Reading from the plea agreement during the arraignment, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Windom said that Gaines used the funds for personal use, including fast food purchases, a pool cover for her home, dental work, hairstyling, an Amazon Fire TV Stick and Amazon Prime services.
Gaines was released on conditions — including surrendering her passport and reporting to pretrial services — pending her sentencing.
Gaines briefly addressed reporters alongside her attorney after the arraignment and apologized “for putting myself in this position.”
“I take full responsibility for what I did,” she said.
U.S. Attorney Robert Hur, alongside Windom and two FBI agents, said in a news conference outside the courthouse that Gaines “betrayed the public trust” with her actions. He added that the plea agreement was “yet another important step” in “rooting out public corruption.”
Hur also echoed what Chuang said during the arraignment, clarifying that the federal sentencing guideline for Gaines of 8-14 months is “simply an advisory range.”
The former delegate is not alone. Gaines’ guilty plea adds her to the growing list of politicians in Maryland who have either been charged with or convicted for crimes, or cited for ethical violations.
She is the third Democratic delegate from Prince George’s County alone to be charged or convicted since 2018.
Former Delegate Will Campos was sentenced to 54 months in prison in May 2018 for conspiracy and bribery. Another former delegate, Michael Vaughn, was sentenced to four years in prison in September 2018 for a bribery conspiracy.
Also last year, state Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, D-Baltimore, was sentenced to 42 months in prison for wire fraud.
Lawmakers have also been officially reprimanded in the General Assembly for ethical issues in recent years. Delegate Jay Jalisi, D-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, D-Harford, was censured this year in connection with allegations that she used a racial slur to describe an area of Prince George’s County.
Last year, Delegate Curt Anderson, D-Baltimore, was stripped of his leadership positions after he was ordered to undergo sexual harassment training in connection with allegations against him, according to The Baltimore Sun. In 2017, former Delegate Dan Morhaim, D-Baltimore County, a physician, was reprimanded for advocating for medical marijuana policies without disclosing his financial ties to a company seeking a license, as reported by The Sun.
Other Maryland officials with ties to corruption include former Vice President and Maryland Gov. Spiro Agnew; former Gov. Marvin Mandel; former Delegate Tiffany Alston, D-Prince George’s; former state Sen. Thomas Bromwell Sr., D-Baltimore County; 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, D-Prince George’s, was acquitted of all corruption charges against him in 2011, according to The Washington Post. Former Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh has been linked to self-dealing in the sale of children’s books; she has not been charged with any crime.