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Ex-lawmaker accused of misusing campaign funds pleads guilty

Tawanna Gaines, a former Maryland delegate, speaks on Thursday, October 17, 2019 outside of the U.S. District Courthouse in Greenbelt. Gaines, who had been accused of taking campaign finance money for personal uses, pleaded guilty to a count of wire fraud.

Tawanna Gaines, a former Maryland delegate, speaks on Thursday, October 17, 2019 outside of the U.S. District Courthouse in Greenbelt. Gaines, who had been accused of taking campaign finance money for personal uses, pleaded guilty to a count of wire fraud. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

GREENBELT — Tawanna Gaines, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of wire fraud in connection with an investigation of her use of a PayPal account.

Gaines was charged 10 days ago with one count of wire fraud as federal prosecutors alleged she siphoned more than $22,000 in campaign donations for personal use. Gaines was charged with soliciting donations, directing them to an unreported PayPal account.

Gaines, wearing a blue jacket and skirt and white blouse, gave only brief, mostly one-word responses as U.S. District Court Judge Theodore Chaung explained her rights and asked her if she agreed with a statement of charges read in court.

Outside, Gaines spoke briefly with reporters.

“I accept full responsibility for what I’ve done,” she said. “I don’t want any of you to judge the Maryland General Assembly by that. There are honorable people working there. I want to apologize to them for putting myself in this position.”

As she left, the Prince George’s County Democrat was asked if she was surprised to be in the position she now finds herself.

“Absolutely,” she said as she walked away.

Prosecutors said the donations were intended both for her own re-election and to “maintain her leadership positions within the Maryland General Assembly.”

The delegate, who had exclusive control of the online account, then took the money.

“The people who donated to her campaign fund didn’t anticipate that she would be using that money for personal expenses and for purchases on Amazon,” said U.S. Attorney in Maryland Robert Hur. “They thought that they were going to be used for campaign-related expenses.”

Gaines pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud related to a $125 withdrawal from the PayPal account. Prosecutors, however, said she took more more than $22,500 over a period of nearly three years.

U.S. Attorney Bob Hur speaks on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Greenbelt. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

U.S. Attorney Robert Hur speaks on Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019 outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Greenbelt. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

In court, Gaines agreed with a statement by prosecutors that she had used the money to pay for fast food in Maryland and Illinois, a pool cover, an Amazon Fire TV Stick, an Amazon Prime account and purchases from the retail giant, as well as dental care and hair stylings.

“Our public officials are entrusted to make decisions in the best interest of the people who elected them into office and not to use their position of authority to line their own pockets,” said Hur.

The top penalty for the crime includes up to 20 years in prison, three years supervised probation, as much as a $250,000 fine as well as court-ordered restitution.

Federal guidelines suggest Gaines could receive between eight and 14 months in prison with no parole. Gaines also agreed to pay restitution of $22,565.03.

She remains free on her own recognizance until her Jan. 3 sentencing hearing but was ordered to surrender her passport.

Gaines resigned suddenly and quietly. News of her resignation did not become public until Oct. 7, the same day she was charged.

Gaines’ political career began after she became the first African American elected to the Berwyn Heights Town Council and that town’s first female mayor in 2000.

She was appointed to the House of Delegates in 2001 to the seat vacated by Del. Richard Palumbo, who was appointed a District Court judge.

In the House, she worked her way up to vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations committee and led that panel’s subcommittees on the capital budget and transportation. She also served as chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission.