Maryland State Lawmaker Tawanna Gaines Pleads Guilty to Misusing Campaign Funds

"Today, Ms. Tawanna Gaines admitted that she betrayed the public trust and broke the law by stealing money from her campaign account and using those funds for personal expenses"

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A former Maryland state lawmaker pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge that she illegally used campaign funds for her personal benefit.

Tawanna Gaines faces a sentence of up to 20 years following her plea to one count of wire fraud.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Windom said Gaines spent campaign money on personal expenses including fast food, hair styling, dental work, a cover for her swimming pool and an Amazon Prime membership.

"Today, Ms. Tawanna Gaines admitted that she betrayed the public trust and broke the law by stealing money from her campaign account and using those funds for personal expenses,"  U.S. Attorney Robert Hur of the District of Maryland said. 

"Our public officials are trusted to make decisions in the best interest of the people who elected them into office, not to use their positions of authority to line their own pockets," Hur continued. 

Gaines apologized, saying she takes full responsibility for her actions.

Gaines, a Democrat from Prince George's County, was charged earlier this month in a criminal information. The Oct. 7 court filing accused Gaines of defrauding her campaign and its contributors out of more than $22,000.

Gaines, 67, of Berwyn Heights, had served in the Maryland House of Delegates since 2001. She resigned less than week before she was charged.

Since June 2002, Gaines had used a campaign committee called "Friends of Tawanna P. Gaines" to raise money for her political campaigns. It was a regulated state election campaign committee with a designated bank account. Separately, Gaines controlled a PayPal account for donations that weren't disclosed in state campaign finance filings, a court filing said.

Gaines, who was vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee, submitted her resignation to House Speaker Adrienne Jones on Oct. 4.

"As elected officials, we have an obligation to uphold the public trust, both in office and in our campaigns," Jones said in a statement. "We cannot sacrifice that trust for personal gain for ourselves or our family members."

Hur told reporters after the hearing, "These types of cases stand for the proposition that the law applies to everyone. No one is above the law." 

Gaines' plea marks the latest legal trouble for former or current state legislators in Maryland in recent years.

Last year, former Sen. Nathaniel Oaks, a Democrat, pleaded guilty to two federal counts of fraud for accepting $15,300 in bribes. His indictment in 2017 came amid a flurry of state and federal charges against would-be, former and sitting lawmakers who ended up in legal trouble.

Gary Brown, a Democrat, was indicted by state prosecutors on charges of making illegal campaign contributions, one day before he was scheduled to be sworn in as a Baltimore delegate. A day later, federal prosecutors announced a former delegate, William Campos, had pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy in a public corruption case involving the liquor industry in Prince George's County. And the very next day, just before the legislative session began, another Prince George's County Democrat, Del. Michael Vaughn, abruptly announced his resignation. Vaughn was indicted in the same federal case as Campos.

U.S. District Judge Theodore D. Chuang is scheduled to sentence Gaines on Jan. 3. Chuang says guidelines call for eight to 33 months in prison, depending on the court's calculation of her criminal history.

The plea agreement with prosecutors also calls for Gaines to pay back at least $22,565.

The judge told Gaines that by pleading guilty, she gives up her right to hold public office, serve on a jury, possess a firearm or vote. 

Associated Press reporter Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, contributed to this report.

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