A jungle of tall, overgrown weeds envelops the backyard of a brick row house on South Calhoun Street in inner city Baltimore. The old and worn pillar from the 1920s, inhabitable and abandoned, is owned by Councilwoman-elect Alicia Hughes (I).
Three residents and an attorney alleged last week that she is unqualified to hold her recently elected office based in part on her connection to the home.
A hearing has been scheduled for next Thursday at the Office of Voter Registration and Elections in response to the inquiry request claiming Hughes is not a resident of Alexandria nor legally qualified to hold office in the city.
The request, sent from attorney J. Gerald Hebert to Commonwealths Attorney Randy Sengel, City Attorney James Banks, the Alexandria Electoral Board and General Registrar Tom Parkins, alleges that Hughes was not a properly registered voter in the City of Alexandria at the time she filed her candidacy papers to run for Alexandria City Council, which holding the office requires.
The serious concerns outlined in the request are predicated on media reports, submitted tax and voter registration records from Maryland and court opinions.
Hebert admits that determining Hughes eligibility depends on additional investigation by the recipients. But he accuses Hughes of acts whose solutions depend on constitutional interpretation, while alleging possible criminal activity making a false material statement as well.
I cannot comment on the specifics of Mr. Heberts complaint, but it is the case that various forms that any candidate is required to file in seeking elected office contain warnings that the making of a false statement on such forms is a felony offense, Sengel, whose office deals with any criminal allegations, not necessarily registration issues, said in a prepared statement. Any complaint of that nature regarding a candidate for office in Alexandria is within the jurisdiction of my office, and we have a statutory responsibility to make inquiry, and will do so when such a complaint is received.
Hughes Baltimore property is currently listed as her principle residence on the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation website, and she received a state tax credit on the property in July 2007 and July 2008, according to Maryland tax official Anita Miller. Hebert submitted both points as evidence questioning Hughes eligibility as an Alexandria resident, qualified voter and member of the City Council.
I would never have entered the race for City Council believing that I was not a resident of Alexandria, Hughes said during a phone call Tuesday. I would never do anything like that. I am a resident of Virginia and I was qualified to run for City Council at the time that I filed my paperwork.
Miller said she has moved forward with removing the tax credit and charging Hughes $462.00 in back taxes, because Hughes confirmed with her that utilities had not been registered to the property since October 2007, rendering it uninhabited.
A property assessment was sent to Hughes Alexandria address in December 2008 that included an application seeking information on the property for the tax credit, but nothing was returned, so the office applied the credit as it did in 2007, Miller said. Then, the process was automatic and did not require an application.
She didnt lie, Miller said. While she may have omitted something, she didnt lie.
According to the Virginia Constitution, Residence, for all purposes of qualification to vote, requires both domicile and a place of abode. Hebert, representing Alexandrians Michael Reid, Hector Huezo and Ronald Rigby, will for his purposes need to present evidence that Hughes registration is not valid because she does not meet such residency requirements.
Residency laws for a potential office holder is open to interpretation and has precedents. It is not illegal for elected officials to have multiple homes in separate jurisdictions, but Hughes primary residence or domicile must be in Alexandria for her to be considered a resident a term that is difficult to give an exact definition to and is based largely on the individuals actions, according to the 1914 case of Wlliams v. Commonwealth that Hebert cites in his inquiry request.
For the purpose of voting and holding office a man cannot have more than one legal residence, the opinion states. Where a man has two places of living, which is his legal residence is to be determined largely, where the right to vote or hold office is involved, by his intention.
Hebert paraphrased, while residency is largely a matter of voter intent, that intent must be manifest by action.
Part of Heberts argument is that by citing her Baltimore property as a principle place of residence, Hughes actions went against her intent to be a Virginia resident. Hughes has apparently left the home vacant, which could also be seen as intentional actions to keep Alexandria as her primary residence.
The idea of residence and domicile is almost in every law, although some states are actually a little looser than Virginia in that if you have or intend to live there at some point, you can be registered there, and that sounds pretty squishy, but thats kind of the way it is, said Parkins, noting he is not a lawyer but has experience with the issue at a former post. Its almost like home is where the heart is.
Despite the listing on the Maryland tax records website, the Baltimore row house has been abandoned for maybe a year or more, according to Phil Hildebrandt, who owns a woodworking shop about 100 feet away and knows Hughes as a former neighbor.
Without knowing absolutely where she lives, the one thing I can tell you is she does not live on Calhoun Street in Baltimore, Hildebrandt said. He said the he had not seen Hughes in four or five months since she came to check on the property until Sunday when she checked on the house after an apparent burglary, currently being investigated by the Baltimore Police Department.
As far as we know were investigating a burglary, and [the house] is pretty vacant, Detective Dwight Harrington said. I couldnt imagine anybody living there. Its pretty bad inside actually, water damage and all that.
Hebert also cites unconfirmed media reports that Hughes did not register her car in Virginia or obtain a state drivers license after moving, a requirement of new Commonwealth residents that leads to a personal property tax on vehicles.
While I might want to, it is less than prudent for me to answer that question or any question about my personal affairs so long as they are the subjects of legal discourse, Hughes said when asked about the reports.
According to the Maryland Election Center, Hughes is still a Maryland voter, registered under the same address as her principle residence in Baltimore. Hebert submitted this information as an exhibit as well.
When registering in Alexandria, the voter is required to list previous addresses and sign the registration form. It is then the responsibility of the new jurisdiction to forward it to the old one, which is supposed to remove the voters name from the roll, according to Parkins, the citys registrar, who noted that his office no longer keeps copies of the numerous forms after forwarding them.
Parkins, who will preside over Thursdays hearing, said he checked with Maryland election officials and he has no reason to believe that Hughes voted in Maryland in any election after the presidential primary of February 2008. He also said he cannot say with complete authority that she did not. Hughes registered as a voter in Alexandria on May 1 later that year and voted in the November presidential election as an Alexandrian.
But Thursdays hearing, over which Parkins will preside, will focus on Hughes voter eligibility in the moment whether she is currently a legally registered voter in Alexandria at her current address not whether she was eligible in 2008 when she first entered the system or in March when she filed for her candida
Her registration, much like her votes since then, cannot be revoked based on her status at the time at least within the narrow scope of Thursdays hearing.
The scope of the hearing is in the here and now the wording in the code is presence tense, said Parkins after consulting an assistant attorney general on the matter. Thats as far as I can go.
Because the May 5 City Council election has been certified, Hughes will likely be sworn in on July 1 as planned, City Attorney James Banks said.