Del. Tiffany T. Alston, already under indictment on theft charges by the state prosecutor, stands accused of ethical violations toward clients that could lead to the suspension of her law license.
The ethics allegations, brought by bar counsel for the Attorney Grievance Commission, include lack of diligence and communication with three clients dating to 2008, as well as failure to respond to bar counsel requests for information.
Bar counsel’s petition for sanctions against Alston, D-Prince George’s, are scheduled for a hearing next week by Maryland’s top court.
“I just pray a lot and stay focused on the clients that I have,” Alston, a solo practitioner who serves on the House Judiciary Committee, said Friday.
A trial judge assigned to the case by the Court of Appeals concluded that Alston violated Maryland’s Lawyers’ Rules of Professional Conduct by failing to diligently represent a client, Walesia Robinson, and keep Robinson informed of the case’s status.
Alston also failed to promptly give Robinson’s new attorney papers related to the case after the client fired her, the hearing judge, Prince George’s County Circuit Judge Albert W. Northrop, stated in his Dec. 17 findings.
Alston, 35, said she is preparing to rebut the findings at the hearing scheduled for June 7. But she added she might ask for that hearing to be rescheduled because she is also scheduled for trial that day in her criminal case in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.
In addition, the first-term delegate faces additional bar counsel allegations of misconduct pertaining to her representation of two other clients.
Alston said bar counsel has denied her substantive due process rights by not giving her a full opportunity to respond to the allegations.
“Dealing with the Attorney Grievance Commission is a paralyzing event, and I would not wish that misfortune on my worst enemy,” Alston added in an email message.
“The process forces lawyers to do something that is contrary to everything that we have been trained and even conditioned to do, which is advocate for our clients,” she wrote. “Instead, a lawyer must surrender the advocacy of one’s client and protect one’s self instead.”
Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman, the state’s chief prosecutor of lawyer misconduct, declined to comment on the charges against Alston.
The criminal case against the delegate arose last fall when grand juries returned two separate indictments in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court charging her with felony and misdemeanor theft, fraudulent misappropriation, misconduct in office and election-law violations.
Alston, who denies the charges, could face up to 17 years in prison and fines of up to $60,000 if convicted of all offenses.
The charges allege Alston put a law-firm employee on the state payroll by classifying her as a legislative clerk. The worker was allegedly paid $800 by the state in January 2011.
Alston is also accused of dipping into her campaign account for personal use, allegedly using $3,560 to cover her wedding expenses in December 2010 and making a $1,250 cash withdrawal.
She is due to go on trial the week of June 5 on the charges of misdemeanor theft and misconduct in office. A trial on the other charges has not been scheduled.
Alston declined to comment on the criminal charges, deferring to her attorney, J. Wyndal Gordon, a Baltimore solo practitioner.
“We look forward to our day in court,” Gordon said. “We expect to come out victorious.”
On the ethics charges, Northrop found Alston missed a scheduled family-law hearing at Prince George’s County Circuit Court in June 2009 related to Robinson’s case.
After Robinson fired her, Alston “failed to respond promptly” to requests for documents from the new attorney, Northrop added.
Alston also failed to comply with terms of a conditional diversion agreement she had reached with bar counsel after he received Robinson’s complaint against Alston, Northrop found. These terms included refunding $5,000 to Robinson within 60 days and attending a continuing legal education class on ethics, the judge added.
Grossman, in a new petition filed last month, alleged Alston failed to get to court right away — as promised — when told her client Ellis B. Caudle II had been arrested for violating a protective order, resulting in his jailing in January 2011. Earlier, Alston had missed a scheduling conference in Caudle’s custody case, according to bar counsel.
Besides these alleged lapses of competence and diligence, Grossman claimed Alston failed to respond promptly to Caudle’s efforts to speak with her. Alston also did not tell Caudle she had moved her office from Upper Marlboro to Lanham and changed her phone number, bar counsel said.
In a third case, Grossman alleged, Alston told client Nolan D. Williams in 2008 that she would obtain admission to practice in federal court so she could represent him in a job discrimination case. Though accepting additional fees from Williams, Alston did not seek federal court admission, and the court dismissed Williams’ suit after no response was filed to a show-cause order, bar counsel said.
Last year, Alston promised but failed to seek a Qualified Domestic Relations Order to establish Williams’ right to compensation from his ex-wife’s 401(k) account, according to Grossman. Alston then failed to respond to Williams’ phone calls, emails or text messages seeking an update on the status of the QDRO over several months, bar counsel said.
Grossman also alleged Alston failed to respond to a written response to the allegations by a specified date “or at any time thereafter.”