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Del. Alston’s 1st trial begins

ANNAPOLIS — Del. Tiffany T. Alston’s trial on charges of misdemeanor theft and misconduct in office got underway Tuesday, after a judge restricted her ability to claim that the charges against her were politically motivated.

Alston, a Prince George’s County Democrat with a solo practice in Lanham, is accused of putting one of her law firm employees on the state payroll in January 2011 by classifying her as a legislative clerk. The worker was paid $800 by the state in January 2011.

In a morning hearing before the trial, Alston’s defense attorney strongly suggested that the corruption prosecution was payback for her efforts to stall Gov. Martin O’Malley’s congressional redistricting plan.

Attorney J. Wyndal Gordon noted that the state prosecutor’s investigation of Alston began within 48 hours of her successful effort last October to delay a vote on O’Malley’s proposal among the General Assembly’s Black Caucus, of which the delegate is a member.

Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt said his office had no communication, “no way,” with O’Malley or his office with regard to Alston.

“Our office is totally independent and we make totally independent prosecutorial decisions,” Davitt said outside the courtroom Tuesday afternoon.

The Black Caucus eventually voted to support O’Malley’s redistricting proposal.

Judge Paul F. Harris Jr., who is presiding over Alston’s trial in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, barred Gordon from bringing up the payback allegation before the jury, saying “there is no basis in fact” for the claim. Harris said the trial would focus on the allegation in the indictment: that Alston had illegally put an employee at her law firm on the state payroll by classifying her as a legislative clerk.

The worker, Rayshawn Ford, was allegedly paid $800 by the state in January 2011, the month Alston was first sworn in as a delegate.

“We’re not opening this up to be a political trial,” Harris said. “I am going to be very vigilant on keeping this trial focused.”

The defense can proceed with the payback argument only if the door to the issue is opened by the prosecution or one of its witnesses during the trial, which began Tuesday afternoon and is expected to last through Monday.

Opening statements

Opening statements began mid-afternoon, after seven women and five men were sworn in as jurors. Only one member of the jury, a woman, is black.

Davitt told the jury that Ford performed no legislative work but continued her duties at Alston’s law office. He said Ford made one visit to Annapolis on Alston’s behalf to fill out paperwork for incoming legislative employees in January 2011

“Ms. Ford never returned to Annapolis,” Davitt told the jury.

Davitt also told the jury that the law firm’s bank had closed Alston’s account, leaving her with no money to pay her employee.

Gordon countered by telling the jury that the case, based on an alleged theft of $800, belongs on television before “Judge Judy” or in Maryland District Court, not in a circuit court being prosecuted by the state prosecutor and his senior assistant, Shelly S. Glenn.

“They have two attorneys and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men to get Tiffany Alston,” Gordon said. “It has nothing to do with being guilty of a crime.

As for Ford, Gordon said, the evidence would show that, though she worked in Alston’s law office, she performed the work of a legislative clerk and deserved to be paid accordingly.

Alston, 35, faces additional charges in an as-yet unscheduled trial 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.

Alston, who denies all the charges, could face up to 17 years in prison and fines of up to $60,000 if convicted of all offenses.

Alston also stands accused of ethical violations that could lead to the suspension of her law license. The Attorney Grievance Commission has accused her of lack of diligence in representing three clients dating to 2008, as well as failure to respond to its requests for information.

Alston denies those allegations.