Let’s end this dismal Maryland tradition

Rejecting calls for leniency from members of the Maryland General Assembly, U.S. District Court judge Theodore Chuang sentenced former Del. Tawanna Gaines to six months in prison after she pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud for taking money from her campaign finance account to pay for personal expenses.

I’m sure the sentence gave Chuang no joy; the idea of a 67-year-old grandmother who otherwise lived a productive and even exemplary life going to prison is sad beyond words.

But the judge did the right thing. It was a message that had to be sent to current and future state legislators, who need a serious attitude adjustment before we can expect them to stop trading their legislative seats for prison cells.

For example, my heart sank last month when I read The Daily Record’s story about the federal wire fraud and bribery charges filed against former state Del. Cheryl Glenn.  No, it didn’t sink because of the charges themselves — you get accustomed to criminal charges against members of the Maryland General Assembly. As described by retired political science professor Matthew Crenson to The Daily Record, it is something of a Maryland tradition.

Rather, my heart sank because of the reaction by Del. Darryl Barnes, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. He made Glenn sound like a victim of circumstance.

Barnes attributed the motive for the crimes allegedly committed by Ms. Glenn to the fact that a delegate’s state salary ($50,330) is too low. “If she accepted money, then obviously she’s not making enough money to make ends meet,” he said. Mr. Barnes explained that state legislators should be compensated “just like the federal government where they pay them handsomely and other benefits where it prevents them from taking money from outside their salary.”

If Barnes believes that a handsome pay and benefit package “prevents” employees from accepting bribes, embezzling money, etc., then he has a lot to learn about political corruption, other white-collar crime, and greed in general. Nevertheless, if he deems the concept of part-time legislators being paid part-time salaries obsolete, he can argue for a change.

In the meantime, however, please don’t equate solicitation of bribery by a state delegate to a crime of poverty. It’s insulting to our intelligence and damaging to efforts to distinguish crimes that are crimes of poverty.

Praise at sentencing

I felt no better later in the week after reading about the letters from Gaines’ former colleagues urging Chuang to impose a lenient sentence despite the serious allegations. Federal prosecutors accused Gaines of stealing more than $22,500 from her campaign finance account over a period of about three years to pay for various personal items.

Del. Wendell Beitzel asked Chuang to consider Gaines’ full career and character when imposing sentence, noting that “she has received countless awards for her public service and good deeds.” House Speaker Adrienne Jones praised Gaines for being “always willing to go the extra mile for her Prince George’s County constituents.” Sen. Addie Eckardt commended Gaines for “her sensitivity to all sides of an issue.” And so on.

There’s something to be said for the loyalty of friends and colleagues, but there’s more to be said for not excusing or minimizing the gravity of political corruption. The victims are members of the public, not the legislators who fall prey to temptation. It was a point not lost on Chuang.

The judge explained that the sentence was intended to reflect the seriousness of the breach of public trust and deter other officials from corruption. “So now more than ever, those in public service must carry out their duties in a way that validates and builds the public trust in our system of government,” he said. “And stealing from your campaign fund, like any public corruption, does the opposite.”

Gaines expressed remorse for her crime but told reporters that she objected to the severity of the sentence and to Huang making an example of her. She stated that she wished the judge had given more weight to her record of public service and that she didn’t like “being used as an example for anyone unless it’s for good.”

Well, some of us believe that the example set by the sentence was “for good.” For the good of ending the dismal Maryland tradition of corrupt state legislators.

[Published as a guest commentary by the Maryland Daily Record on January 9, 2020,  but not posted to my blog until August 20, 2020. The date of posting that appears above was backdated to place all posts in the order in which they were written.]

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