ANNAPOLIS — A Maryland delegate who reached a plea agreement with the state prosecutor this week was automatically suspended from office without pay when a judge sentenced her, the legal counsel to the Maryland General Assembly concluded in a legal opinion Wednesday.
Dan Friedman responded to a request from House Speaker Michael Busch, who asked for legal advice regarding Del. Tiffany Alston’s status after she entered a plea deal on Tuesday.
“It is my view that she has now been suspended from elective office by operation of law without pay or benefits,” Friedman wrote to the speaker.
However, Friedman’s letter includes a footnote stating that he has provided the advice without addressing other potential ramifications of Alston’s criminal case. He said it was important to provide immediate clarity on whether she has been suspended.
An attorney for Alston, Rauof Abdullah, said he disagrees with the opinion. He called this a unique legal situation, because Alston’s misconduct conviction can later be changed to probation if she fulfills certain requirements.
Alston, D-Prince George’s, settled two separate cases with Tuesday’s plea deal. In June, a jury found her guilty of using $800 in state money to pay an employee in her law firm, and Alston agreed not to contest the finding in the plea agreement.
Anne Arundel County Circuit Judge Paul Harris sentenced Alston to one year in jail with all of the time suspended for misconduct in office that related to the payment to her employee. She was sentenced to three years of supervised probation and 300 hours of community service. She must pay the money back to the state.
She also pleaded no contest to charges relating to using campaign money to pay wedding expenses, a charge for which she was about to stand trial.
After court on Tuesday, Alston and her attorney contended that Harris had sentenced her to probation before judgment on the charges relating to the wedding expenses.
They also said that her June conviction for misconduct in office could be changed to probation before judgment later, after she performs the community service requirement and pays back the money.
Abdullah said Friedman’s opinion is based on the idea that the sentencing was a final adjudication, which Abdullah contends it’s not.
“What we have here is a conviction that is temporary,” Abdullah said.
In his opinion Wednesday, Friedman also wrote that Alston’s suspension has triggered the process for appointing a person to temporarily fill her position. The Democratic Central Committee for Prince George’s County has 30 days from Tuesday to forward names of temporary replacements to Gov. Martin O’Malley, who then has 15 days to select a replacement.
Abdullah said he will challenge efforts to replace Alston.
Maryland’s constitution calls for suspension of any elected official who is convicted or enters a no contest plea to any crime that is a felony or a misdemeanor related to the official’s duties and responsibilities and involves moral turpitude for which the penalty can be incarceration.
In earlier political corruption cases, including those resolved against former Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon in 2010, legal experts have said that the suspension provision does not take effect until sentencing.
In effect, probation before judgment keeps the conviction from taking effect if the terms of the probation are successfully completed on schedule.
However, a suspended sentence, such as Alston received for the misconduct charge, does not have the same effect.
Friedman wrote that the misconduct in office conviction is a misdemeanor that qualifies for suspension.